Taking a first opportunity since returning from abroad
to appraise the acoustics of the re-opened, refurbished Barbican Hall,
I heard the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Tadaaki
Otaka. Their tour of seven major UK cities was expensively
sponsored, but a programme of Takemitzu, Mozart (D minor Concerto/John
Lill) and Mahler 4 was dispiriting, leaving one national
critic so depressed that he declared himself in urgent need of Sapporo
beer! They were well disciplined, but it was the sort of music-making
that makes one tend to agree with those who think the large symphony
orchestra is becoming something of an anachronism. From the 4th
row of the circle, the sound was bright and clear, but the violins were
lack-lustre playing on their E strings. The plus point was that
the new air conditioning system has achieved a virtually silent background,
so that for me the pauses in the music were the best thing in the evening,
and it is now possible there to risk really quiet pianissimi in this
large space (see Sound
in Silence - the acoustics of the KKL Concert Hall at Lucerne).
The next night, from similar seats, the LSO
under Mariss Jansons failed to engage my interest in Brahms Symphony
No 3 (I had been spoiled for large-orchestra Brahms by the recent Paavo
Berglund recordings with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe - Ondine
ODE990-2T) and I was again slightly troubled
by the edgy tone of the violins, not so different from the Japanese
the previous night, so suggesting that some acoustical 'fine-tuning'
may still be desirable.
However, the second half was a very different matter.
The strings sounded fine, with the cellos and basses sonorous as one
expects from the LSO, and Jansons, conducting without baton, conveyed
his vision effectively; were these pieces given a larger share of rehearsal
time? This was a programme which had no obvious thematic coherence,
but some of the best known Mahler Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs
(Thomas Hampson on commanding form) made a fascinating juxtaposition
with Ravel's La Valse - their orchestrations are so different,
but both so sharp and telling. The Mahler songs of rural
legend and war benefited from the new sound at the Barbican, and Hampson
got across the storytelling easily to show-stopping acclamation. La
Valse was dark and thrilling in its depiction of a world so far
from Johann Strauss.
A chance to hear the great accompanist Graham
Johnson (Senior Professor of Accompaniment at The Guildhall School of
Music & Drama) before the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra, in a public
Master Class next door to the Barbican Hall, was too good to miss. It
proved to be an enthralling way to spend the afternoon. The
Guildhall School's lively programme of events open to the public, most
of them admission free, is well worth keeping in mind (programme
details and mailing list from www.gsmd.ac.uk).
Graham Johnson, preparing students for a Britten mini-festival, Let
the Florid Music Praise, dispensed a wealth of learning and good
advice, achieving a perfect balance between the (primary) needs of the
participants and the entertainment of the audience with avuncular reminiscences
of Britten's character and his very precise requirements. He was on
excellent terms with the alert, responsive singers, some of them not
British nationals and discovering the subtle pitfalls of a language
which can be hard to sing, and especially if every word (some of them
unusual or archaic) is not understood.
Under his tutelage, Michelle Jueno (mezzo) modified
her approach to Walter de la Mare songs from 'Tit for Tat' by the teenage
Britten (reworked for publication) and baritone John Evans was helped
to keep the anger in the eponymous Tit for Tat song itself, an
early attack upon hunting and cruelty to animals, 'under the surface'
with for stronger effect later. And so on for several absorbing hours,
through 'Friday Afternoons' to 'Winter Words', taking in some Folksong
settings (with a wonderful cameo about how the 'wrong notes' accompaniments
outraged the Cecil Sharp House fraternity, self-appointed preservers
of the purity of English Folk Song), before transferring to the Barbican
I have often reminded readers of Seen&Heard
that the best of London's music making is frequently to be heard in
the Music Colleges and University Departments and I would urge everyone
to make contact and keep in touch with their nearest one.
Peter Grahame Woolf
The Britten concerts 'Let the Florid Music Praise' run
from Thursday, 22nd to Tuesday, 27th November 2001