Review: Capucon plays Bartok Violin Concerto No. 1 and No. 2 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Péter Eötvös

A mixed experience. Strong playing from the strings, a beautifully rich tone from Capucon, but some difficulties with balance which didn’t really get corrected until the last work in the programme.

Capucon plays with a warm tone throughout this mercurial material. Sometimes the orchestra swamps in the fortissimos. The generous acoustic in the Grimaldi Forum highlights some moments of great precision in the opening movement – one particular chord with triangle was exquisite.

But the balance between soloist and orchestra wasn’t consistent and didn’t favour the solo line necessarily. It did settle down towards the end of the first movement.

The second movement in comparison is musically difficult to follow. The material creeps along, the underlying narrative structure of the movement difficult to decipher. It felt like what seemed like an unedifying work on a first listen hadn’t necessarily been given due attention to underline its central ideas.

The battle between sections of the orchestra seemed to continue Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. It’s a well-known work brimming with recognisable tunes and heartwarming evocations of a bygone era most of us can only perceive. It showed the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s current calling card: a strong vibrant string section that works hard to create a wide variety of compelling colours and textures.

Consistently throughout this performance and in Bartok Violin No. 2 the strings delivered in the generous acoustic, but this was at the expense of the woodwind section who seemed to struggle cutting across the band.

This I took to be down to the conductor Péter Eötvös who (after a similar experience watching him conduct the Philharmonia recently) I remain unconvinced about in terms of direction. It’s difficult from an audience members point of view to know 100% what a conductor provides an orchestra. We the audience don’t get the full picture – only the back or the side.

There were moments when it felt like details like dynamic contrast, balance between sections and detailed attention to the ends of phrases had been overlooked.

This was the case during the fourth movement when the counter-melody in the pizzicato celli almost seemed to go overlooked. Later in the third movement, declamatory statements didn’t appear quite as doom-laden as I’ve heard in other performances. The beginning of phrases seemed to lack the attack I’ve come to expect.Some of the drama was lost.

It made me wonder whether Eostvosworkman like conducting style meant the finer points were lost a little. Similarly, some of the watery textures in Bartok’s orchestration didn’t come across quite so fluidly at the beginning of the third movement.

Credit where its undoubtedly due though: the bassoons in the second movement were something to behold. And whilst the dynamic range of the string section wasn’t as marked as I personally would have liked, there was simply no doubt that the section delivered, especially on the G-string.

Bartok’s second violin concerto is immediately more interesting in terms of material. The first movement is more cohesive – Bartok’s juxtaposition of material combined with seamless transitions makes the argument easier to follow and the end product more satisfying to listen to.

The balance between the orchestra and soloist was strikingly different too.

Capucon is captivating. He has an air of the Candyman from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory about him. Proud, determined, and sensitive with a seductively infectious enthusiasm. Another mannerism I noted during this performance – the stiff leg kick thing he does from time to time is weirdly satisfying to see. He was doing a similar thing during the encore when sat towards the back of the firsts , momentarily reposition ing himself in the chair when he’s tense with unspent energy.

The second movement confirms Bartok’s material in this work makes this concerto far more compelling. Exquisite playing. Capucon’s tone rung out again, every note ‘bang on’ every time, positioned right in the centre. Here he created and sustained the magic right up until the end of the second movement. The silent transition to the final movement was a beautiful piece of ballet in itself.

Review: Signum Quartet play Van Dijk, and Beethoven Op.130 and Op.132 at Monte Carlo International Festival

The Signum Quartet provide take a lyrical approach to Beethoven, prefaced with a compelling performance of Van Dijk’s epic depiction of rage.

Pairing van Dijk’s (Rage) Rage Against The for string quartet with two late Beethoven String Quartet provided an interesting comparison. van Dijk’s creation gave a sense of fractured voices gradually asserting themselves over time and breaking out into a full-blown community set-to, multiple voices articulated with devastating effect by only four instruments playing with a variety of effects. This work undoubtedly suited the Signum Quartet the best, in particular cellist Thomas Schwitz whose dedication to the multiple demands van Dijk’s score made saw the instrumentalist venture onto stage with bows, the hair of one was in shreds by the end of the performance.

The Signum Quartet’s stamina is clearly considerable. Soon after, the first of two late Beethoven quartets – the fifteenth. For those not in the know already, the fifteenth was written before the thirteenth, but the fifteenth was published after the thirteenth.

This felt like a broadly romantic approach to what I’ve always regarded as a tough, sinewy collection of works. The Signum’s sweet tone – warm cello, soft rounded viola, and bright-sounding violins – sometimes gave Beethoven’s very physical, complex and sometimes aggressive writing a delicacy I hadn’t heard before.

Here it felt like the quartet was in a lot of places getting accustomed to the acoustic of the Musee Oceanapgraphic. Detail in the pianissimos, especially staccatos was lost, meaning phrases appeared to start with a sense of confidence but later fizzle out. This inadvertently created a mild sense of frustration as though we were hearing the opening clause of a statement, but the concluding phrase was lost to mumbling and incoherence.

At least that was how proceedings started. Come the first appearance of the second subject in the third movement (sorry for the detail here), there a greater sense of precision, marked by my increasing awareness of the gaps in between the notes. This created a sense of electricity which in turn imbued the return of the opening subject of the movement with strength, warmth and determination. From then on, each subsequent return of each melodic idea came with a greater sense of clarity, and increased attentiveness.

If live performance is like a sporting match – this was a great example. My assumptions were challenged. Something changed. My attention was grabbed. In this way the fourth movement recitative built on the third movement gains.

Post-interval – a gratifyingly leisurely affair at the Monte Carlo Festival – the thirteenth quartet consolidated the transformation the Signum Quartet had secured. The first movement began with greater self-assurance and demonstrated how the group had become better accustomed to the acoustic. There was more attack in the fortissimo sections. A far more muscular sound: the lyricism had been put to one side for a while. And whilst this was maintained for a while, there was for me an overall lack of distinction between the various voices in the score which made the schizophrenic nature of Beethoven’s material meld more than I would have liked. But the fourth movement allegro exposed parts of the first violin part I’d never heard before – a fascinating set of syncopations which made me feel momentarially rebellious.

I last heard these quartets live in the Eglise at Verbier a couple of years back. My memory of that was they were epic performances of a phenomenally demanding work that those performances wanted us the audience to participate in. The Signums may well have been unfairly pitched against that personal memory.

Thoroughly Good Podcast Series 5 Ep 34: Composer James MacMillan and Tenebrae’s Nigel Short

The more Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcasts I make, the more I learn about a subject which not only yields more and more, but also satisfies both the mind and the soul.

A lot of that is down to what these podcasts are: a chance to speak to practitoners about their work, compensating for a years of missed opportunities by now living vicariously through the life and experiences of artists.

Recent episodes including the Peter Donohoe interview or the podcast spotlighting the work of composer Dani Howard are good examples. This Podcast 34 does the job well too.

It’s largely about the Holy Week Festival at St Johns Smith Square in London (visit sjss.org.uk for more information about the festival which runs from 14-20 April.

This podcast features contributions from (in order of appearance) composer James MacMillan who celebrates his 60th birthday this year and Tenebrae conductor Nigel Short both of whom appear with other artists and ensembles at the festival.

The podcast also includes a cheeky bonus follow-up question I’ve wanted to ask Nigel Short for at least a year. He was game. It’s always rather lovely to nerd out from time to time I find. Be sure to listen out for the bass notes.


Thoroughly Good Podcast Series 5 Ep 34: Composer James MacMillan and Tenebrae’s Nigel Short

The more Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcasts I make, the more I learn about a subject which not only yields more and more, but also satisfies both the mind and the soul.

A lot of that is down to what these podcasts are: a chance to speak to practitoners about their work, compensating for a years of missed opportunities by now living vicariously through the life and experiences of artists.

Recent episodes including the Peter Donohoe interview or the podcast spotlighting the work of composer Dani Howard are good examples. This Podcast 34 does the job well too.

It’s largely about the Holy Week Festival at St Johns Smith Square in London (visit sjss.org.uk for more information about the festival which runs from 14-20 April.

This podcast features contributions from (in order of appearance) composer James MacMillan who celebrates his 60th birthday this year and Tenebrae conductor Nigel Short both of whom appear with other artists and ensembles at the festival.

The podcast also includes a cheeky bonus follow-up question I’ve wanted to ask Nigel Short for at least a year. He was game. It’s always rather lovely to nerd out from time to time I find. Be sure to listen out for the bass notes.


Introducing Verbier’s 2019 Festival

News of Verbier’s 2019 season reminds me of an important moment in time. A sort-of rite of passage. A coming of age. The moment in time when I discovered chamber music and when the Thoroughly Good Blog was legitimised.

It feels a little odd to be writing about a festival, the memory of which in some respects still leaves a mildly sour taste in the mouth.

For those not aware, those who have forgotten, or those who hadn’t put two and two together at the time, it was Verbier which prompted quite a lot of soul-searching and industry foot-stamping on my part last July.

For the backstory read this.

Festivals, artists and other creative endeavours want coverage. They want influencers to bang the drum (pun intended), but when it comes to thorny question of costs, a lot regard only the mainstream ‘press’ as legitimate editorial platforms.

It turned out to be a difficult issue to grapple with on my part. But I’m glad I did, because it helped me legitimise in my own mind what I was doing on the Thoroughly Good Blog and with the Podcast too.

Verbier marks a transition in this way. A sort-of rite of passage. A coming of age. A really glamorous ex-partner who a year later has got back in touch (via a third-party) with a new brochure, a new-looking logo and details of its newest season.

Verbier: mountains; sky; sunshine; wine; classical music

In some respects Verbier could programme a volunteer to read entries from an archive telephone directory and it would still feel like art.

Such is the power of the environs. Distractions are stripped away, attention is focussed. New musical discoveries can be made because proximity to the artists and immediacy of the art have been prioritised.

It’s Aldeburgh in the clouds. If memory serves me correctly, one person even described Verbier as ‘Aldeburgh on steroids.’

That’s largely because of its relative seclusion. It’s also to do with the clear air and the steep hills. Most importantly its to do with the meeting of artists. We as audience are not so much concert attendees as observers of art in creation. Art in laboratory conditions.

Christian Thompson is Director of the Verbier Festival Academy – a residential training programme for exceptional young musicians. In this podcast, recorded in Verbier in August 2016, Christian explains his vision for the Academy and its participants, and how the Academy is developing the next generation of soloists. The music featured in this podcast is the opening movement from Brahms’ first piano quartet. #VF2016

Verbier is where I finally acquired an appetite for chamber music.

It’s where I discovered Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, witnessed clarinetist Martin Frost‘s circular breathing technique, marveled at the terrifying energy of Janine Jansen, and finally understood Beethoven’s late string quartets.

Intense performances in intimate surroundings (make a beeline for Verbier L’Eglise over the hangar-like Salle des Combins) that create deeply personal and lasting memories.

Amongst the press pack highlights, a few names stand out. Notably, cellist (and former Verbier Academy student) Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s in a concert appearance with Daniel Hope, Marc Bouchkov, Lawrence Power and George Li. Also, pianist
Evgeny Kissin in a programme of Beethoven works, and violinists Joshua Bell and Alexander Sitkovetsky.

The reappearance of Daniil Trifonov is also a must-listen. I count his performance of Lizst’s Transcendental Etudes as one of a handful of personally transformative experiences. Also, the premiere of Thomas Ades Three Berceuses for Viola and Piano.

I read the press information and see more British representation in the programme as a whole which might help the Festival gain international cut-through outside of France, Germany and Switzerland – something of an aim of theirs as I recall a few years back.

Know that if you want to attend, you’ll need a train journey to the bottom of the mountain and a cable car (or taxi) to get to your destination. And be sure to book early to get the best rates. A cool beer at the cafe in the centre of town is a must. So too a glass or rose in the mountains.

The Verbier Festival runs from 18 July – 3 August 2019. Tickets from https://www.verbierfestival.com/en/