Reviewed: LPO and The Fauré Project

A shadow play of colours.

LPO, Jurowski; The Fauré Project
Royal Festival Hall; Wigmore Hall

Classical music can seem monolithic at times and yet it is subject to the same whims and fads of fashion as the other arts. In pre-war years the Proms would devote whole evenings to Beethoven and Wagner, a practice now replaced by witty juxtapositions of contrasting composers. But there’s been something retro in the air recently, with two very different concerts taking us back to those single-minded musical encounters.

At the Southbank Centre, the Rest Is Noise festival reached its gritty core in the dark times of 1930s Germany – a period in which politics gripped culture more tightly than ever before. Introducing a concert of music by Berg, Webern, Martinu and Bartók, the conductor Vladimir Jurowski warned his audience that this was “probably the most challenging programme of the year”. He was right. We’ve become so used to treating difficult and contemporary works – not always, but lazily often, synonymous – as a dose that must be swallowed along with our symphonic spoonful of sugar that we’re not prepared for the mental effort involved.

For those who took up Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s challenge, the evening offered exhilaration as well as exhaustion. We opened with Webern’s Variations for Orchestra – one of the most inscrutable works of the almost-repertoire. By encouraging us to treat it as an evolving sequence of colouristic sound-pictures, Jurowski freed the work’s suppressed lyric qualities. Moments of musical abstraction gained emotional weight as part of a narrative. Sometimes a solo violin phrase is just that, but sometimes – and this was one of those rare times – it is everything.

With the aid of the soprano Barbara Hannigan, Berg’s Symphonic Pieces from Lulu brought us back to the literal. A hazy, sleazy blend of string chords dared us to look away from the tragedy that unfolds in vivid tableaux in this orchestral digestion of Berg’s opera. Piano and muted brass cut through any consolation we might have found in the jazzinflected Ostinato that soundtracks Lulu’s trial and imprisonment, and Jurowski’s driving speeds barely paused as we hurtled on to Lulu’s death at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

A different world greeted us after the interval, pairing Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta with Martinu’s Double Concert for two string orchestras, piano and timpani. Composed for the same unusual forces, Bartók’s work is a classic while Martinu’s has been unaccountably neglected. The less ascetic of the two, it might lack the intellectual heft of the Bartók, but Jurowski made a compelling case for its athletic appeal. And while the Bartók exposed some issues of ensemble within the orchestra, Martinu’s more generous writing saw the LPO united in a frenzied celebration of all that is extrovert and joyous in 20th-century music.

The softer, domestic face of the early 20th century was on show at the Wigmore Hall in the first of a sequence of three concerts – the Fauré Project – devoted to the music of Gabriel Fauré. Although best-known for his Requiem, it is in his chamber works for strings that the composer’s ear for timbre and textural effect is most striking. Anticipating the later innovations of Debussy and Ravel, Faure’s conservative image is very much at odds with the impressionistic soundscapes of his Cello Sonata in D minor and his Piano Trio in D minor – late works that might still inhabit the fading world of the salon, but fling its door wide to chromatic uncertainties and shifting alliances of harmony and counterpoint.

In many ways the Capuçon brothers (violinist Renaud and cellist Gautier) are themselves a bit of a throwback. They perform with unashamedly thick vibrato and have the lush style born of a former era of string virtuosi. It’s an approach that sits better on Gautier, with his closer attention to the detail of phrasing and intonation. The Cello Sonata with the excellent Michel Dalberto at the piano) was a shadow-play of muted colours, almost having the feel of a lieder for the dialogue of the Allegro comodo, and spinning the flimsiest of cantilenas in the slow movement.

The Violin Sonata No 2 in E minor, by contrast, was all primary colours and punch. Renaud Capuçon’s energy is intoxicating but in flinging his talent so vehemently at his audience he denies Fauré’s ebbing lines the retreat and release they need to heighten their climaxes. Coming together for the Piano Trio and earlier Piano Quartet No 1 in C minor, the brothers still maintained their differing approaches, with Gautier pulling back to allow the piano its melodic moment, or duet delicately with the viola. Renaud, meanwhile, remained ever the soloist, seizing ear and attention with every broad gesture of his bow.

The conductor Vladimir Jurowski.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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