Bartok’s Memorial House, Parliament Square and Home

I’m spending four days in Budapest attending concerts in the Cafe Budapest Festival 2017.

This post, the last in the series, documents a trip to Bartok’s Memorial House, some time spent in Parliament Square, and a Hungarian taxi driver’s experience of working in the UK.

Read the other posts in the series here

 

There’s a bittersweet feeling to the last day of any trip. I love it. Always have.

The last is the day when you’re in the zone. Everything is within arms’ reach. You feel at home wherever it is you’ve spent the past few days. The middle class glamour of another international airport awaits, but before then you’ve got to exit your hotel room – your cave for the duration – and go it alone for a few hours. You’re in limbo. Your mind is set free. You’re able to focus on anything and everything.

I made a beeline for composer Bela Bartok’s ‘Memorial House’ mid-morning. It’s an adventure in comparison to the local trips I’ve made on foot and on the Metro. This trip demands I take a bus, the Number 11 from Batthyany ter (I can say this out loud now). The clean odourless bendy bus silently ventures out past tired buildings, gaudy back-lit signs for tanning booths and grey apartment buildings. Soon, we’re climbing up a steep tree-lined hill where things have suddenly become a lot more sedate. Predictably, I get off at the wrong stop and end-up having to walk back down the hill, along windy roads.

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It’s all a little eery, walking down slightly decaying pavements with tufts of grass sprouting from cracks in the Tarmac. Apart from the occasional dog-walker, the neighbourhood is silent, like a film set for a dystopian mini-series.

Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra

This eeriness might have something to do with me listening to Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. Written after he’d left Hungary and moved to the US during the second World War, stylistically the work harks back to romantic roots but pimps it at the same time – the essential characteristics of post-romanticism in classical music. But what Prokofiev did well, Bartok does better. The Concerto for Orchestra, while not representative of the period Bartok lived in the house in Csalán Road (1932-1940), still possesses a mysteriousness and longing about it I associate with my perceptions of a nationalist composer displaced by war (just listen to the wistful solos in the clarinet in the first movement). It is a brilliant work, his most popular and well-known too. Rich, descriptive, and evocative throughout with moments of great beauty and fierce pride. In this work Bartok seems to employ much of the language of Schoenberg and Richard Strauss at the same time as paying homage to Tchaikovsky. There’s a bit of Shostakovich  in there too heard in the spikey scoring, and undoubtedly a lot of Kodaly in the soaring passionate melodies.

But Bartok goes further. He seems to be able twist the knife in the melody far better than Shostakovich could even at his most angry. There’s a realism to Bartok’s writing which elevates him above Shostakovich. In Shostakovich we witness a battle; in Bartok we are a part of it.

Then there are those moments when he’s able to convey elegance, beauty and menace all in the same melody. The fourth movement intermezzo is a great example. Marvellously efficient writing. Reassuring and terrifying at the same time.

The music casts a cautious air over my surroundings. There is an implicit permission us tourists take for granted amongst the predictable destinations in the centre of a city. Venture outside of those invisible boundaries into the places where the locals live and the permission falls away. That’s when the smiling and nodding at strangers in a bid to gain acceptance suddenly becomes important and, on occasions, a little maniacal and ultimately counter-productive. What I do know for sure is that people walking up hills generally won’t bother looking up so you don’t need to worry about them – they’re concentrating their energies getting up the hill.

Bartok’s Memorial House

Bartok’s Memorial House isn’t your usual kind of museum. Once you’ve pressed the call button the lock is released and the gate slowly swings open. Climb the steep steps up towards the front door (now part of the renovated exterior) and you’ll be greeted by museum staff like you’re the distant relative on his backpacking travels they’ve reluctantly agreed to accommodate. It’s not a frosty welcome by any means. There’s a charm about the place rooted in a pride for an important national figure and his legacy.

Once inside I’m advised that I can’t take pictures and that my guide will accompany me throughout the house. At first this feels a little full-on for my liking. Being forced into a one to one relationship I didn’t seek out makes me feel a little trapped. But, as it turns out the guide, offers me a full-on resource for Bartok’s life. It seems almost impossible to imagine there will ever be an appetite or a willingness to open-up the doors of present-day composers when they’ve died. I’m not sure whether that’s a shame or a relief.

Most of the time on the visit is spent in Bartok’s study, living quarters (now a recital room) on the first and second floors, and in the attic conversion opened for public visits ten years ago.

Bartok's study (Picture: Bartok Memorial House)

Bartok's Phonograph and portable typewriter used to collect and transcribe 1300 folk songs from across Hungary in the early years of the 20th Century. (Picture: Bela Bartok Memorial House)

There are three Bosendorfer pianos, Bartok’s furniture, the phonograph and portable typewriter he took with him across Hungary to capture and then transcribe an astonishing 1300 folk songs, plus the various items he collected along the way too. He seemed to have a fondness for ceramic bowls it seems, liked to store his rolling tobacco in a clog, and possessed a remarkable fork-like inkpen for drawing out ledger lines.

The most surprising exhibit is one of Bartok’s half-smoked cigarettes. The composer was a heavy smoker which presumably conitrbuted to his diagnosis of leukeamia. The cigarette was discovered on the sound-board of one of the Bosendorfers, abandoned, forgotten about and extinguished before it did any damage. Now on display there is a creepy edge to it.

These like the many photographs which line the alarmed rooms (don’t lean too far beyond the roped off areas because highly sensitive alarms will go off and tear your ear drums) are items which make Bartok real. A man with a strong jaw, a steely stare and puritanical aspirations. The pictures also show a demonstrative man, one who loved his children and adored his own parents.

Parliament Square

Back in the centre of the city I crammed in a quick visit to the Parliament building.

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An American chap at breakfast today had commented how he reckoned the Houses of Parliament in London was ‘much better’. Personally, don’t see it. Hungary’s Parliament building is cleaner, easier to get close to, and fronted by a large expanse of public space. In front of it two soldiers walk around the bottom of a flagpole at the top of which flies a Hungarian flag. They could have just put the flagpole their and be done with it, but to have people guarding it says something about what Hungary achieved in 1989.

At one corner of the square a statue to Imre Nagy stands on a steep footbridge looking towards Parliament Square. The man who tried to bring down the Soviet power in Hungary in 1956 failed and in 1958 was tried by Kruschev in a secret court and buried face down in an unmarked grave near to where his was shot. His statue depicts a kindly man in stark contrast to the ignominious demise he suffered. The statue’s position and the struggle climbing it is a chilling metaphor.

Wrapping Up

Waiting for my taxi to arrive at the hotel, I crack on with the last tasks, selecting and editing the pictures I’ve taken on my half-day sightseeing jaunt and uploading them to the blog. Photographs, unlike podcast interviews or anything I’ve written, aren’t difficult to look over during the ‘edit’. I accept some stuff will look a little flat; I know there’ll be some stuff that works; there’ll also be things which surprise.

It’s the pictures of the soldiers in the square which really resonate: military uniforms are always so very well designed with long sweeping lines which flatter, mask and exaggerate. I’m also impressed how well the Panasonic LUMIX handles in daylight.

I work fast and complete the upload just as my taxi pulls into the car park and two new faces both with laptops, cameras and an earnest look on their faces settle themselves down at the bar. They could be the next people on the Festival press trip, just checked in to their hotel and catching-up on the to-do list in a bid to meet fast-approaching deadlines.

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It is the ultimate bittersweet moment, a clear sign that your time working on this is over and there are others now doing the same thing. It’s a moment which extinguishes any hint of self-importance: you’re not the only one on this merry-go-round and that what had quickly felt like home is nothing more than a transitory space.

Commemorations, wide roads, and the EU

In the last frenetic moments of the trip – a taxi ride during the slow-moving yet polite orderliness of the Budapest rush-hour – my driver asks me whether I’ve enjoyed my stay in Budapest and what my impressions are of the city.

I comment on its cleanliness, it’s calmness and the fact that I haven’t seen a single person angry. He explains that the wide roads I’ve complimented him on we’re in fact constructed at a point in time when the preferred method of transport was horse and cart and “they needed more space than the cars do now”. What that means now of course is that Pest benefits from multiple carriageways in both directions.

He tells me about the Revolution commemorations this coming weekend, how people will be celebrating but how it’s only really important for the older generation who remember the events of 1956. “I was only born in the year it happened. It is seven out of ten important for me to remember. What is difficult for us is not knowing the truth about it. There are so many different stories told about it. No-one knows for sure.”

As I eat the two apples I pilfered from breakfast he responds to my question about the UK voting to leave the EU. He explains how he thinks it will mean fewer opportunities for the young people of Hungary of the kind he took up in 2003. He explains how he spent 8 years working as a lorry driver in the UK while his wife worked as an English teacher in Manchester. “When my granddaughter was born in Budapest, I wanted us to go home – I didn’t want to stay in the UK any longer.” What attracted him in the first place? “We could earn more in the UK than we could in Hungary. They were offering us more and we were able to go there. Why wouldn’t we?” I compliment him on his excellent English. He says he learnt it by listening, “although I found the Scottish accent very difficult – I didn’t understand anything of what they were saying.”

We shake hands at the airport. He encourages me to visit Budapest again. I love these opportunities. They still feel like privileges. I want to do more of them.

Concerto Budapest Orchestra play Penderecki’s new Trumpet Concerto at Cafe Budapest

Penderecki’s music from the past twenty years is tricky to assess. Far from the radicalism displayed in his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, his later works have taken on a more orthodox style. What challenges the assessment is the language he deploys. Has he sold out or is he doing something fresh?
The composer has adopted the neo-classicism and post-romanticism of the likes of Bartok and Strauss but made his musical creations relevant and absorbing without submitting to cliches. Technically, that’s a good thing. It’s entertaining to listen to without being corny or superficial, but it doesn’t challenge the senses or provoke a strong reaction. His recent music evokes emotional responses through musical imagery that draws heavily on the past. It still, somehow, remains fresh and engaging.
His new Trumpet Concerto – a breathtaking demonstration of rich and efficient writing sparkled. Trumpeter Gábor Boldoczki clearly felt at home with the work delighting the audience to such an extent that the encore – a reprise of the last movement – seemed like a no-brainer. This was the high point of the programme, in no small part to Gábor and chief conductor András Keller who approached the work with verve as the band drove through all manner of driving rhythms and melodic terror.
There had been much enthusiasm when Penderecki  stepped on to the stage at the Concert Hall to conduct his Sinfonietta for Strings
and the Adagio from his third symphony. He had about him a beguiling air of the elder statesman, a turn-of-the-century negotiator who was in no hurry, only wanting to do what he loved.
Conducting isn’t perhaps his strong suit, however. His less than demonstrative style made it tricky for the orchestra, particularly the strings, to provide resolute beginnings to sequences. Some of his beats were lost beneath the stand, for example. As a result it felt at times when he was conducting that the Concerto Budapest Orchestra was under-performing.
The second half’s Beethoven 7 felt a little out of place in a contemporary music festival. In the UK there would normally be a nod in the programme explaining the juxtaposition. There were some sublime moments in the second movement which promised great things but didn’t end-up coming to much, Penderecki’s conducting  style making the performance a bit of a missed opportunity. That said, the brass and woodwind playing was stunning – a really silky tone in the trombones, so too the horns.

Just getting on with it in Budapest

I’m spending four days in Budapest attending concerts in the Cafe Budapest Festival 2017.

This post, the third of four, captures my activities on what turned out to be a gentle day spent on a sightseeing boat trip and tasting the delights of the Gerloczy Cafe and Brasserie. Read the other posts in the series here

I started today feeling really quite flat. I’d had a good night’s sleep – a lack of sleep wasn’t the problem. In fact I slept really rather well.

I woke up of my own accord at 8am, switched on the kettle and made myself a cup of tea with coffee creamer. Europeans – or rather, hotel chains – seem unable to contemplate that some of us need milk in our tea. We’re prepared to compromise on UHT, of course. And we’ll forgive you if you bring us a pot of hot water and a tea bag on a saucer if we order a cup of tea. But just because its possible to make tea with coffee creamer doesn’t mean your guests should be forced to. Really. Come along now.

It wasn’t the lack of real milk that was the problem. Not really. It was Twitter and my reaction to it this morning. This always happens. I start scrolling through the posts of the people I follow – a lot of classical music related individuals – and end up thinking ‘I really should be doing more than I am at the moment. Nice as a trip to a foreign country to hear classical music is, I really ought to be doing more of what they’re doing.’ I’m comparing myself with others when I think that kind of stuff. And comparing yourself with others really does you no good whatsoever. I tell that to plenty of other people. I have no idea why I don’t remember it myself.

So I promised myself to make the day a gentle day. I finished off some long overdue writing and booked myself onto a sightseeing boat trip.

I even left enough time to get to the Legenda Sightseeing Boat Dock I’m now a dab hand with the Metro. (That feels like a natural thing to say and also weird considering I only arrived here 36 hours ago and will be flying home tomorrow night – a reflection of how your own company over a short space of time can play tricks with your mind.)

I like the way you can stroll onto the underground system with your ticket in your pocket and not need to scan it to get through the barriers. I like the way that the doors don’t open automatically when the train stops at the platform, but that others will pick up the slack when your stupid finger can’t make the button work. I like the way the enforcement officers ask politely for your ticket when they want to see it, go to great lengths to say thank you once they’ve checked it and then apologise for the inconvenience. Frankly, I like the fact the Hungarians largely take it on trust you’ll pay your way, and don’t piss and moan like we do in London if you don’t move quickly enough off the train. Us Brits could learn a lot from the Europeans.

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What the boat trip illustrated was the sheer scale of the Danube, the buildings on either side of it, and the sense of pride the Hungarians take in their city’s assets. It is a humbling thing, perhaps even embarrassing. I sat on the boat watching the magnificence of the Parliament building slowly pass by and think of how parochial London seems in comparison. One thousand men worked for 17 years to build the Parliament building. It is a beautiful sight. Defiant. Solid. Unshakeable. The Hungarians know their stuff.

Parliament Building

Come to think of it, most of the buildings along the banks of the Danube share that same commitment. From the bizarre but inventive ‘Whale’ concert hall, to the grand frontages of the University buildings, up the Danube towards the under construction swimming pool ahead of next year’s world swimming championship. There’s beauty in it all, of course, but what’s most striking is the might. Strangely reassuring might too.

The tiredness caught up with me on the boat trip along with a familiar feeling for me: where is all of this going? Fun as it is, what purpose does it serve? The writing, I mean. As convenient as self-publishing is, what is its impact? What is its legacy? What does the process deliver? Does anyone really care? And if they don’t, what should I do next?

These are familiar thoughts for any writer, I suspect. They crop up from time to time and flash their terrifying teeth at you. Then for one reason or another disappear without a trace. I don’t know why they crop up or how they go. I just have to sit it out and remind myself that in the self-publishing world the only person you have to keep happy writing is yourself. I sat it out and let Budapest slowly pass by.

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The rest of the day was spent indulging in an unexpected treat: the Gerloczy Cafe and Brasserie. Lined with Damask wallpaper, dark wood pannelling and studded leather benches, the Gerloczy Cafe and Brasserie knows its turn-of-the-century style and wears it well. It maintains an authentic air and avoids cliche. It’s staff offer a warm welcome and lack pretension, relying instead on elegance and decorum.

The food is a stunning creation too, packed with flavour and stylishly presented. This is a must-visit. Two course meals start at 14 Euro; three courses at 16 Euro. The price should surely be higher than that – the quality of the experience is first rate. But the price is what it is. It is a very special place that will restore your faith in human nature.

It was here I witnessed a Russian (I think) woman engage the charming maitre d’ in a protracted conversation about her specific requirements regarding a sandwich (rye bread, no tomatoes). “Can’t you just make it?” she said at one point. As expected the maitre d’ was accommodating to a fault and helped make soothe her testiness and make her feel comfortable. It was an impressive sight.

When I retrieved my notebook to scribble down some ideas, she spoke to me across the empty restaurant asking me, “Are you a writer?” “Yes,” I said, clearing my throat. “Can you help me please? I am writing a film script but my tutor tells me that it is no good, that is has no story. I have a psychological block that stops me from writing. What should I do?”

Considering my earlier ruminations, I was surprised at the immediacy of my response and the underlying impatience. “Sit for ten minutes. Make sure you have no distractions and write. Just write.”

“That is all?”

“Just do it,” I replied. “Just get on with it.”

Mirrors, running and posters in Budapest

I’m spending four days in Budapest attending concerts in the Cafe Budapest Festival 2017. This post, the second of four, takes me on an extended walking trip to the Vigado Concert Hall, Budapest’s sumptuous Gellert Baths and a much-anticipated concert of music by Steve Reich. Read the other posts in the series here

First full day in Budapest and I feel like I’ve been here for ages. I think I might possibly be going a little stir crazy, I don’t know. Send help.

I’ve done more exercise here in 24 hours than I’d ever do in London. That’s partly to do with not realising Budapest has a metro system and because I’m a twat.

I’ve walked a total of 4 miles and, I think, actually run one or one and a half. Considering how daunting I thought running would be, it was relatively straightforward to get underway. I enjoyed the process too. It felt like a tangible achievement. I just wish I’d had the presence of mind to have done some stretching before I set out this morning. My groin has been agony all day. Rookie error, no doubt.

After the running, shower and a longer-than-planned breakfast during which I asked the two American gentlemen sat next to me who they thought would win the Presidential election (one supported Clinton; the other saw value in the anti-establishment vote Trump was courting), there was only a short amount of time to get across the river to the Vigado Concert Hall for the Danubia Orchestra’s children’s concert. So, another walk.

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The Danube is a deceptive thing – much wider than the Thames. It hadn’t even dawned on me that I could use the Metro to get there, so I walked at speed – considerable speed – and arrived in my very comfortable seat with sweat pouring down my face. Not a great look. I looked better when I’d finished my run and come out of the shower. 

The Tale of Bela concert given by the Danubia Orchestras was an ingenious and charming affair attended by well-to-do families who’s sense of occasion about the affair was reflected in the outfits they’d kitted their offspring out in. I can’t remember a children’s concert I’ve attended when there have been less disturbances in the audience. Quite remarkable.

danubia orchestra

I didn’t necessarily understand a word of what was going on but suspect it was an allegory about the Hungarian Uprising. 

The Vigado Concert Hall sits majestically on the edge of the Danube, but its lavish interior is almost too perfect. The decor is beautiful, lining a grand space, but the building is devoid of personality. Grandeur over spirit. It’s also a bugger to photograph – so many pillars.

The afternoon saw another walk to Gellert Baths. Built in 1927, bombed during the second World War and only ever closed to the public for one day since, the Gellert Baths are a lavish Art Deco affair with a hint of Hungary’s utilitarian past thrown in. It is the ultimate in spas offering thermal pools, a swimming pool, saunas, steam rooms and a whole variety of massages. I arrived a little stressed, unable to fathom out whether I needed a swimming cap and ‘slippers’ or not.

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The Hungarians like their signs. The multitude of fonts, italicisation and unneccessary emboldening nearly brought me out in a rash. But the signage is at a cost, taking the customer on a long journey from entrance to changing rooms, up stairs, down stairs and up again. It’s counter-intuitive. Arrows show direction of travel with good intent, but if arrows aren’t used sparingly all sorts of confusion can arise as I learnt to my cost when I momentarily discovered myself in the women’s showers.  

I realised when I got dressed to go for dinner that I seem to spend a tremendous amount of time staring at myself in a mirror when I’m on trips like this. What I realise on this trip is that when I see myself in the mirror I don’t especially like what I see – a podgy, rough, tired old queen who doesn’t especially miss his youth but wouldn’t mind feeling slightly more alive when he sees himself. Surprisingly however, I didn’t self-conscious about my appearance at the Gellert Baths where all manner of body shapes are on display – a refreshingly normalising experience.  

That excitement I’m craving is as it happens what experience more and more I see an unfamiliar font. This trip to Budapest have been a Aladdin’s Cave of discoveries, first at the Baths and, when I found it and realised my Budapest Card gave me free access to it, the Metro system as well. 

The fonts used on public transport are a particular favourite (top right, above). I’ve got a book at home that details lots of new European fonts. A modest coffee table publication which I have, for some reason, chosen to store on the new bookshelves in the recently reconfigured study. Time to retrieve it and put it on permanent display I think.

I’ve struggled to find anything that can sum up the Hungarian Uprising. It feels like a complex subject with multiple angles and viewpoints – a world away from the 20th century history I studied for GCSE History exam. But there’s a pressure too, a sense of responsibility that if you’re present in a city with a turbulent past then as a visitor you should pay your respects to that history. That doesn’t mean hearing someone tell you about, but searching for the tangible evidence in a bid to try and get under the skin of it.

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I wander past buildings with pockmarks, others either have render which has dropped away or it’s stained dark grey. Either way it’s in need of attention. When I see it I project my own assumed narrative of what happened 60 years ago. I’ve no idea what the history of particular buildings is, what part those buildings played in the history of the country’s struggle against fascism and communism, but when I see buildings in a state of disrepair I wonder whether they’ve deliberately been left like that as a potent reminder of the past.

Elsewhere – the Parliament Building or the Vigado Concert Hall for example – the architecture is so clean it pops in the sunlight. It seems incredible that for all the struggling against oppression that is rooted in Hungary’s recent past, that buildings of such lavish and opulent beauty have survived. That, I think, says more about my assumptions about communism and fascism perhaps than anything else.

The Uprising Commeroration Adverts speak to me in a different way today. Yesterday, the images of the young children with weaponry slung around their necks was a heartbreaking sight. Today, the image of Pongratz Gergely with a gun in his hand, a tagline scrawled across each print “Pay attention to the home of Hungarian Freedom”. There’s determination in the eyes of the adults pictured which makes me want understand better what happened back then and what narrative is being told about the past now.

Most chilling are those featuring Sponga Julianna who, despite repeated searches on the internet I can find almost nothing about. She has a haunting look about her that demands further investigation. 

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Dinner was at the marvellous First Strudel House of Pest. Two minutes walk from Freedom Square in Pest I almost missed it strolling down Október 6 street. My tenacity paid off however. The welcome was warm, the service attentive (without being insincere) and the strudel was out of this world. And after dinner, a stroll onto the Steve Reich concert at the Lizst Academy where the seating is plush.

Amadinda Ensemble, Kelemen Quartet and UMZE Chamber Ensemble celebrate Steve Reich’s 80th Birthday in Budapest

Steve Reich’s music occupies a special place in the hearts of its devotees. Concerts attract earnest (in some cases obsessive) crowds, but the spirit of inclusivity borne out of the audience’s high expectations and infectious enthusiasm in undeniable.

To mark Reich’s 80th, the Amadinda Percussion ensemble joined forces with the Kelemen Quartet and the UMZE Chamber Ensemble to perform a selection of music by the composer. Also joining on stage were pianists Balog Jozsef and Mali Emese. 

Mallet Quartet for two vibraphones and two xylophones received its world premiere in Budapest in 2009, the culmination of a 25 year collaboration between the Amadinda ensemble and Reich himself. It’s a thought-provoking work, taking us on a journey from textbook upbeat joyous Reich, through pensive reflection, onto a celebratory conclusion tinged with a hint of unease. What joy there is at the beginning of the work is tempered by an unshakeable tension at the end.

The most musically satisfying of the composer’s larger ensemble works, City Life also happened to turn out to be the performance highlight of the evening. The Kelemen Quartet accompanied by UMZE Chamber Ensemble played with heart and grit in equal measure, taking us through a range of aural cityscapes, some grim, others terrifying. In the fifth movement – Heartbeats – the distinction between live music and recorded ambience was indecipherable creating what at times appeared like a nightmare vision of urban life.

In some respects hearing Reich’s music in the opulent surroundings of the Lizst Academy in Budapest seemed incongruent with the images he conjures up in his writing. The acoustic, whilst generous, sometimes muddied the rich lines from the percussion instruments. The Quartet – a work for two vibes and two pianos for example, highlighted the acoustic challenge which in turn drew attention to the demands placed on the Ensemble placing chords and ensuring unison lines were uniformly played.

Radio Rewrite – a collaboration between Reich and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood – is different in character and, in some ways, musically less satisfying. The phrases Reich uses are longer meaning the driving rhythms we come to expect from his creation are lost in favour of complex seemingly ever-changing time changes. There was as a result a perceptible lack of punch to proceedings made the work feel a little long.