Review: Capucon Quartet playing Beethoven String Quartets Opus 132 and 135 and the Printemps des Arts de Monte Carlo 2019

The Capucon Quartet are rock stars. That is all that needs to be said.

The Capucon Quartet’s concert was another must-attend for me (in part because of the chance to see Verbier Academy alumni and Thoroughly Good interviewee from a few years back, cellist Edgar Moreau) , making this Monte Carlo visit the trip where I binged on four Beethoven lates in 24 hours. Not for the faint-hearted by any means.

The second of the two concerts was in the finer acoustic and even in amongst the ostentatious chocolate box interior of the Opera Garnier in Monte Carlo. Two blistering performances of Beethoven string quartets (12 and 16), prefaced by a compelling performance of Kagel’s storytelling for accordion Pandorasbox from 1960 brilliantly performed by Jean-Etienne Sotty (below). Never before has a performer been so evidently commanded by the instrument he is playing. A fascinating muse on the role of the performer.

The Capucon Quartet began with Opus. 132, playing with poise and committment right from the off. They are, if you need an analogy, a rock star presence on the platform who perform even when they’re not playing a note. That makes attention all the easier, preparing us the listener for every note, delighting us when they sound.

Capucon pounds his heel on the stage – the first of two mannerisms I’ve seen here in Monte Carlo which should technically be a distraction, but does instead add to the overall effect. He exudes an alluring and intense kind of heat when he plays which only adds to the effect.

Cellist Moreau in comparison – youthful complexion with a strong nose – gives off a studious air about him as though he’s not yet given himself permission to live the experience he’s having. Guillaume Chilemme (second violin) and Adrien La Marca (viola) maintain a solid but comparatively low key presence, supporting their colleagues but not competing with them. I’m not clear on whether that’s as it should be, but the implicit deference on stage was striking nonetheless.

The second movement of Opus 132 – a profound musical expression – was made more enthralling as all found maintained a sense of stillness throughout. Long sweeping statements seemed to continue long after the musical phrases had come to an end. Here there was a sense of completeness about the experience as though the music was being conjured up from amongst them and existing around and about them.

The energy was broken after a false start to Opus 135 when one of Moreau’s strings either broke or slipped at the beginning of the performance. This understandably demanded all the performers left the stage whilst the necessary corrections were made. This didn’t impact their performance necessarily, though there was a sense that this interruption underlined by the supportive warm applause when Moreau had to call a halt to proceedings had cut the energy short.

Such piffling detail didn’t put a dent in proceedings especially. If anything it illustrated the necessary criteria for Beethoven string quartets. There needs to be focus, uncompromising commitment and limitless energy. As you’d expect the Capucon Quartet had this in spades throughout. But what will remain memorable about this event was Opus 132. An undoubted highlight of my musical year.

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.

Album Review: Alessio Bax plays Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with Southbank Sinfonia on Signum

This is a humble unfussy interpretation of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto given by Alessio Bax with the Southbank Sinfonia and their principal conductor Simon Over.

Bax is a good match for the rich sonorities and sometimes complex demands of Beethoven’s writing. He avoids the temptation of self-indulgence, presenting a clean immediate interpretation of the material that helps demystify the work. Legatos sections have a graceful fluidity, and the articulation a business-like precision. The rubatos (in the Beethoven concerto and throughout the album in fact) are textbook Bax too – just the right amount of pull-back of speed before returning back to the original intent. That gives the interpretation a beguiling human quality too. 

The wind and brass dominate throughout the first movement (the strings seem low in the mix – perhaps they needed a few more players to balance things out). Their chance to shine is undoubtedly at the beginning of the second movement where the main subject is a collective stage whisper ahead of the piano entry. Throughout the second movement the strings appear to gain in terms of balance, though the wind and brass are still strong.

A near-equilibrium is reached in the third movement between the two orchestra sections suggesting the entire work has been a tussle for the attention of the piano solo line.

A big hand must go to the timpani player Louise Goodwin whose delicately articulated phrase (the rhythmic material underpinning the entire concerto) is something to behold.

The other half of the album sees Alessio Bax on his own, opening with a Bach-infused F minor Prelude – is followed by Beethoven’s compact and little heard piano sonata number 27. Both works are for me the pleasing elements on this album. The second and concluding movement of the sonata in particular is especially charming, at various stages giving Bax an opportunity to display his trademark fluid legatos and unfussy rubatos.

The Contredanses are curious things that motor along at a gentile pace, and are a fascinating listening study, but not necessarily a fulfilling listen. The concluding Polonaise repays the listener with something a little more resolute.

Alessio Bax playing Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 (with the Southbank Sinfonia conducted by Simon Over) and works for solo piano is released on Signum Classics and available via Spotify.

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Review: Fire On All Sides / James Rhodes

James Rhodes latest release on Instrumental Records International is a lovingly curated sequence of fiercely intense performances. The gratifyingly unfussy pianist has concocted a treat that demands listening from beginning to end uninterrupted.

I am at risk of sounding like a fanboy. That would never do. Anyone who leaves their objectivity behind will be sneered upon so the writing guidelines state.

But with Rhodes’ Fire On All Sides its difficult not to do anything else. His 2016 recital tour programme of Chopin, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff is electrifying stuff.

Much of this enthusiasm is I wonder down to the autobiography he released a couple of years back. Instrumental gave us the pianist in all his vulnerability, positioning his musical talent as a miraculous product of his mental suffering.

Well no. The music is part of that suffering – part of the healing process. Read Instrumental and discover the passion he has for his art. Then listen to any recording of him play. It’s impossible to separate James Rhodes’ personal story from the music he’s playing. Perhaps reconciling the two is the answer instead.

By doing so, there’s an unequivocal and irresistible authenticity to his performances. And perhaps its that which creates the necessary link between audience and performer when listening back to a recording.

Because that’s what happens here. That’s what has happened every time I’ve listened to Fire On All Sides in its entirety, all in one go. It’s as though I’m there in the Britten Studio in Snape where it was recorded, in the space feeling the emotion as the music is played.

The prompt efficient storytelling of the first prelude in the ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ prepares us for an exquisite rapid fire range of modulations in Chopin’s monumental F Minor Fantasie – what at times feels like passport to an intensely intimate and self-reflective domain.

The subsequent Chopin Polonaise felt more difficult to get absorbed in, but the comparatively easier melodic material in Beethoven’s A Flat Major Sonata No.31 made the personalities James Rhodes commanded at the keyboard more easily discernible.

After a fierce allegro molto the pianist demonstrates remarkable facility to extrude the raw beauty from Beethoven’s melodic material in the final movement adagio ma non troppo. The harmonic transitions in the run-up to the recapitulation in the allegro ma non troppo are delicious.

Later, Rachmaninoff’s E Flat Minor Etude has an unwavering human focus to it that makes the work a hypnotic.

Come the final release in Yvar Mikhashoff’s arrangement of O mio babbino caro tears start to flow. Little wonder. James Rhodes is a a remarkable communicator, one who wants his audience to love the music he does.

There is a tiny rub. Inside the CD cover, one sentence sets the whole thing to self-destruct. In explaining the link between the CD and the book he’s written about the tour he embarked on in 2016 he says, “Like every other area of my life, it’s heavily based on fantasy.”

It raises a tantalising question for me. Have I been hoodwinked by him? Is this self-deprecation, subversion, or a defensive technique? Is he laughing at me when he says that? Or is he keeping me and countless others at arms length, protecting himself from feedback he thinks he wouldn’t be able to process.

Maybe that in itself is his James Rhodes’ intention, to focus attention on what matters most: the music.

The answer, of course, is to read the book – billed by Instrumental Records as “an intimate exploration of what it’s like to be a celebrated pianist embarking on a world tour, when you have multiple voices jostling in your head, sabotaging your happiness and sapping your confidence.”

Right now I’m approaching the book with trepidation. I don’t want anything to damage this quite unexpected listening experience.

  • Fire On All Sides‘ is released on Friday 12 January 2018
  • The book ‘Fire On All Sides’ is released on Thursday 11 January 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon

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BBC Proms 2017 / 10: Beethoven Symphony No. 3 / Aurora Orchestra

Beethoven 3 last night sounded remarkable. Rich and sonorous. Sinewy. Robust. Their playing gave the music life, giving the work a newness I’d not heard before.

It amazes me how much of a difference musicians playing from memory can have on a performance. Aurora Orchestra’s USP reinvigorates the genre and the concert-going experience breathing new life into the repertory the same way the period performance movement did in the early nineties.

All too often we settle for the orthodox. When I hear something unashamedly different from the norm, it makes me clap my hands together excitedly. So too here.

Another standout moment from this year’s season. But then it was Aurora Orchestra. What did you expect a fanboy to say?