Thursday, 17 March 2011

Yakov Kreizberg (1959-2011): an appreciation

Amongst my circle of friends it is typical that over dinner conversation should turn to matters musical. After a substantial debate around the merits of György Kurtág's music, I found myself faced with the question, “Which conductor do you wish you'd heard more often in concert?”
My immediate reply: “Yakov Kreizberg”.
My dinner companions nodded thoughtfully or looked perplexed, but my questioner refused to let it rest at that and pressed me for further elaboration.

I heard Yakov Kreizberg conduct on two occasions: Der Rosenkavalier at English National Opera and in concert at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in Schumann's second symphony and Brahms' violin concerto. The soloist was his long-time collaborator Julia Fischer.

Der Rosenkavalier, I recall, was conducted rather at arm's length. I did not feel that Kreizberg was fully connected with the drama and passion that is – for me at least – so much part of the opera's fabric. The playing was perfectly correct, everything was in its appropriate place, yet whilst listening to it I remained unmoved.

My thoughts on the 2006 Schumann and Brahms concert were published at the time. Re-reading the review, I am conscious of the fact that my attention is more on Julia Fisher's solo contribution than Yakov Kreizberg's conducting in the concerto. Schumann, however, allowed Kreizberg to really grab my attention. Going back to the notes I made in the concert programme, I commented on the 'definite sense of purpose' and 'clear technique and astute ear for layering the orchestral sections […] building sonorities from the bass range upwards'. It is a shame that Kreizberg never made it into the recording studio with Schumann.

Afterwards, I headed to the Concertgebouw café to bide my time before heading back upstairs to hear Radu Lupu play Beethoven. Much to my surprise, Yakov Kreizberg took a seat opposite me shortly afterwards. Evidently still feeling the afterglow of Schumann's great passions – as was I – he sat and we conversed fulsomely whilst he consumed first a soup then chocolate cake at an alarming rate. The lasting impression was one of courtesy, utter professionalism of course, but that he treated my remarks with respect, even though it was momentarily obvious that our views differed regarding the dynamic impetus required for the first movement. (He laughed upon seeing my comment “too laboured ???”, thought a moment, and nodded slightly with a broad smile). It was easy for me to see that if he took this kind of approach with orchestras and soloists just why his colleagues have been so quick to offer fulsome praise in the wake of his untimely death following illness at the age of 51.

A varied legacy is left on CD and DVD, with several of the orchestras Kreizberg headed as chief conductor or music director represented. Early encounters on CD for Decca included two recordings of Berthold Goldschmidt's music, including the clarinet concerto. Not surprisingly his collaboration with Julia Fischer and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra features strongly on the Pentatone label. Practically every release – including of the Brahms solo and double concertos – received favourable reviews upon release. Their Mozart concertos and notable for their scale, cleanliness and unassuming style. Dvořák symphonies impress for their pliant sensitivity as much as his Shostakovich reflects the ability he had to bring out inevitability of form in the composer's writing. His only recording of a Bruckner symphony (no. 7 with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra) was deservedly a contender for the 2006 Grammy Best Orchestral Performance award. Kreizberg's most recent artistic relationship was with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. They released in January this year a 3 CD set of the Stravinsky ballets on the orchestra’s own label, featuring the rising star mezzo-soprano Renata Pokupic. The latest recording with Julia Fischer is due out on Decca next month, featuring Suk, Respighi, Chausson and Vaughan Williams. One wonders what else might have been forthcoming in time from Monte-Carlo under Kreizberg's baton. Only his opera repertoire is significantly under-represented, with a Don Giovanni filmed at Glyndebourne.

Returning to Yakov's interpretation of Der Rosenkavalier once more I am tempted to think that actually he got it right. Richard Strauss' music can be played coolly and largely free of traditional Viennese excess, even when it is at its most overtly romantic. Surely a key defining characteristic in any musician of stature is their ability to persuade that another interpretation is not only technically possible, but that it also makes musical sense. For that reason alone Yakov Kreizberg surely still had much to offer orchestras, soloists and audiences, making his loss all the harder to bear.

Coincidentally, if I were to be asked the question again as to which conductor I want hear more of, I would go for Yakov's older brother, Semyon Bychkov.

Image credit: Marco Borggreve

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Ayckbourn's "Drowning on Dry Land", Jermyn Street Theatre

Ayckbourn first attacked the vacuity of celebrity in his significant 1988 play Man of the Moment, throughout which he held back few punches. By comparison the writing and structure of Drowning on Dry Land can seem just as many misses as direct hits, for all that though it contains its share of entertainment value which this production directed by Guy Retallack does its level best to exploit.

Charlie Conrad has it all – the wife, vast house, endorsement deals, TV appearances, children – as a result of his ability to be a failure at everything he tries, from middle-distance running to a contestant on the latest game show. He just freezes, but the public love him for it. Life is going swimmingly well until he is caught in a compromising position with a starstruck and sexually confident children's entertainer, Marsha Bates, aka Mr Chortles the clown. From that moment Conrad's world unravels before our very eyes. His manager tries damage limitation, but cannot avert the threat of legal action and an immediate suit for divorce. In losing everything of material concern, Conrad is left with his most valuable attribute: nothing.

Christopher Coghill's portrayal of Conrad is intentionally a blank, someone you would instantly forget – surely the opposite of a celebrity, or is it? Ayckbourn never really answers the question, along with a few others: is Marsha / Mr Chortles exploited or does she exploit to further her own ends; and, in the end, is celebrity something that we (the audience) can no longer live without, try as we might to play down our guilty pleasure? The Jermyn Street Theatre's intimate space is ideally suited to confronting these questions. Still trying to decide at what point a woman who wears male undergarments becomes a man in legal terms though...! The argument, along with the comedy bloomers, deserves to be inadmissible in court.

Helen Mortimer's Marsha plays well against Emma Swain's Linzi, Conrad's wife, just as Russell Bentley's portrayal of hotshot lawyer Simeon Diggs wins the argument hands down against his counterpart. Though each has at some point a comment to make on Charlie Conrad's situation, arguably none has more to say than his agent Jason Ratcliffe. In playing Ratcliffe, Les Dennis must surely have reflected long and hard on the fickle nature of the fame game, though mixing understatement in his portrayal with oily managerial charm.

Other critics in the regular press might have carped more about the real worth of the play, but on exiting the theatre my survey said that it proved a hit with the audience. The production runs until 19 March 2011.

Image credit: Ferdaus Shamim

FeMusa String Ensemble play Amirov and Zeynalli, 28 February 2011

The FeMusa String Ensemble gave an hour-long concert at Westminster Central Hall under the auspices of The European Azerbaijan Society to mark the nineteenth anniversary of the Khojaly massacre in Azerbaijan. Under the direction of their founder/leader Nazrin Rashidova, they played two works by Azerbaijani composers: the Nizami Symphony by Fikret Amirov (1922-1984) and Mugham Sayagi by Asaf Zeynalli (1909-1932).

Zeynalli's short piece encapsulated the essence of mugham, the complex Azeri musical form that weds classical poetry and improvisation through the utilisation of a modal system; a certain intensity of expression is often associated with the rising musical pitch of the music as well. Originally scored for violin and piano, the robust arrangement for string orchestra – largely playing in unison, all sections producing balanced and adequately rich tone – had a stately feeling at the adopted largo tempo. An appropriately sombre touch, in-keeping with the occasion, was lent by top and tailing the score with brief but atmospheric use of tubular bells. Across the ensuing texture Nazrin Rashidova spun a solo violin line that was contemplative, its melancholic poetic voice firmly to the fore. 

No less a composer than Shostakovich commented that “Amirov is a composer with a rich, melodic ability. The melody is the spirit of his creativity.” If the symphony, which dates from 1947 and celebrates the twelfth century poet Nizami Ganjavi, is anything to go by then his personal voice thrives on deliberate juxtapositions of material, both within and across its movements, though thankfully for a work of this period the impact of any realist aesthetic on his musical thinking is limited. The first movement opened with a unison burst in the upper register across the orchestra, cellos becoming inward-looking, violas more characterful in their expression, emphasising the searching thoughtfulness at work behind the notes. Only when playing at forte in high register did the music slightly lack finesse in execution. The second movement was outwardly more joyful in character, lengthy lines woven and wilfully contrasted with adroitly judged changes in tempo. The third movement appeared in the guise of a nocturne, its fulsome unison steadily built, against which Rashidova’s solo violin broke free in a passionate downward sweep before drawing the ensemble towards a neat pianissimo. The closing movement, Allegro con brio, tightly constructed from thematic material drawn from the previous movements, was played with obvious panache and assurity, giving the work as a whole much needed cohesion.

Three extracts from other works filled out the programme: the Larghetto from Elgar’s Serenade for Strings was played at an appropriately judged tempo with well upholstered tone. The Sentimental Sarabande from Britten’s Simple Symphony highlighted the brilliant assurance of his youthful writing through the clearly sustained instrumental parts, benefitting particularly from tender cello line held against the other pizzicato strings. Grieg’s The First Meeting effectively sustained its over-riding character of vocalise in the upper strings against a slow and sombre backdrop.