Friday, 19 June 2015

Brilliant pairings : François-Xavier Roth Mahler Chamber Orchestra Aldeburgh

François-Xavier Roth's concert with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at the Aldeburgh Festival will probably be the highlight of this year's festival. That the print media ignored it speaks volumes about the London press. Roth is one of the most exciting conductors of his generation because nearly everything he does is musically astute and well informed. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra is a superlative ensemble, and with Roth they achieve great heights.  Absolutely this was the concert to go to. Fortunately the BBC recognized the significance and recorded it for broadcast, still available HERE.

Roth is a fascinating conductor because his background lies both in baroque and in new music,  He has conducted Lully, using a staff like Lully did, but without mishap, giving physical emphasis to the underlying rhythm and liveliness in the music. Roth's musical intelligence generates great energy and insight.  Read more here about some of the connections between French baroque and new music. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra  is part of the network of orchestras founded by Claudio Abbado,. Standards are exceptionally high.  It's an exclusive network that includes the Berlin Philharmonic and the Lucerne Festival. Musicians are chosen individually for the quality of their work. Because they work together a lot, they know each other well. But they're fresh and fluid because they work with different orchestras, within the network and beyond. No fossilizing here!

The programme was eclectic. This was Roth's debut at Aldeburgh. He loves it as the regulars do because it promotes new music in context with what's gone before, exactly as Britten himself  wished.  The Overture to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro exploded into life, reminding us how audacious Mozart must have sounded when he was writing "new music". Figaro the servant will outwit his master. Subversive stuff in a era when authority could not be challenged. Rarely can it have been performed with such vivacious energy. But that's the joy of hearing it in a mixed performance, with a chamber orchestra. They can put everything into the moment without having to save themselves for the rest of the opera, knowing that the audience can figure Figaro for themselves.

Hearing audacious Mozart prepared us for the inventiveness of Luke Bedford's Wonderful Two Headed Nightingale.  The connections are deep. Bedford uses the same instrumentation as Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante. The purity of concept enhances the intricate interrelationship between the violin (Matthew Truscott) and viola (Joel Winter) and the orchestra. The title refers to the conjoined twins Millie and Christine McCoy, who became singers, escaping a lifetime of slavery or freak shows through their music. As a piece of "pure" abstract music Wonderful Two Headed Nightingale works well  because the dialogue between the soloists is reflected  sensitively in the orchestra, suggesting intricate patterns of harmony and non-harmony. Like conjoined twins, the soloists have to co-operate, yet their voices are - literally - very different. The violin line soars and moves with graceful ease, at times flying so high that it seems to dissipate into the stratosphere, like "a lark ascending". The viola supports it, but , more earthbound, discreetly demurs. playing chords that prod and provoke. Altered tuning adds to the sense of mystery. The "voices" are echoed by pairs of oboes and horns - more "conjoined twins" adding haunting, almost mournful texture, reminding us that the twins' situation would only end in death and silence.  It's an exquisite piece, utterly original and distinctive, fast becoming part of the canon. 

The connection between new music and the baroque was further emphasized with Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin. In 1919, this was new music too, even more radical than Ravel's original version for piano. In many ways, it's more "baroque" in spirit , for the delicacy of the orchestration mimics a harpsichord, Couperin's own instrument. Under the baton of a baroque specialist like  François-Xavier Roth, the dance elements seem liberating, the oboe part seductive, like a lithe dancer. The strings played with such grace that the notes seem to dissolve into sheer light: an approach very close to much contemporary music.

George Benjamin loves Le tombeau de Couperin., for it fits well with the pointillist refinement of his own style.  Benjamin's  Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra diverges from much of his earlier work, in that its last movement goes for maximum impact, with huge gongs placed antiphonally, encircling the rest of the orchestra in their embrace. Yet, tellingly, the percussion did not overwhelm: loudness for its own sake is for boors.  I was sitting barely three metres away, yet could hear musicality, not noise.  Sensitive playing!  The combinations of flugelhorn, euphonium and contrabassoon (good to see Gordon Laing again)  evoke a sense of strangeness, lightened by bright, bell-like percussion and pizzicato.  One could imagine the sounds of a forest, birds in the canopy, rustlings in the undergrowth below, through which one progresses with purposeful deliberation.

Schubert's Symphony no 5 reiterated some of the themes of what went before, the pairing of instruments, the values of purity, and even the audacity of Mozart, which so appealed to Schubert, who was only 19 when he wrote the piece. Far from being "minor" it's Lieder ohne Worte, where discipline of form enhances expression, ideal for a Liederabend of chamber musicians.  The Mahler Chamber Orchestra responded with grace, the playing so lyrical that one could dream of dancers. Roth gets such brightness and energy from this orchestra that it's hard to believe that it's the first time he's worked with them in public. They seem an ideal fit, in the Abbado and Daniel Harding spirit, though Roth is a quirkier character. Great hopes for the future!

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