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Peter Maxwell Davies’s attempts, 25 years ago, to write an opera about St Francis of Assisi were scuppered when Olivier Messiaen got there first. But the idea for an overture remained, and London heard it for the first time this week, played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Christopher Austin.
It’s quite a curtain-raiser. Within its 15 minutes, the piece is permeated by the plainchant Franciscus, pauper et humilis. Broadly sung out in the strings, it calms the swirling cacophony of the opening, shimmers, halo-like, through an orchestra that tears it apart, and Scotch-snaps it into action. For the composer, predictably, “imagined the events of Francis’s life taking place in Kirkwall rather than Assisi”. Now, there’s an idea. What about a St Magnus opera set in Umbria?
The trumpet is a bright, heraldic presence, illuminating the score as the voice of the saint himself (as in Maxwell Davies’s 1988 Trumpet Concerto). The plainchant cunningly transforms both the trumpet’s music and material from the composer’s recent Violin Concerto. The result is a confident if sometimes cumbersome collage of a piece.
Speaking of violin concertos, the evening’s real event was Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 2, played to perfection by the new leader of the Manchester Camerata, Giovanni Guzzo. He led the RPO a dance in the finale’s folk-inspired rondo, and created wonderfully long lines of ever-intensifying stratospheric song, as celestial met terrestrial. Guzzo’s cadenza — which links the two sections of this single-movement work — was formidable both in technical and imaginative virtuosity.
On the other side of the interval, the young Danish cellist Jakob Kullberg tackled the dark confrontations of Lutoslawski’s 1970 Concerto with aplomb. The conflict between the individual (the soloist plays entirely alone for many minutes at the start) and society was the composer’s self-admitted programme: the RPO and Kullberg took up, even if they did not always perfectly meet, the challenge in a sinewy and edgy performance.

Hilary Finch, THE TIMES (October 27, 2011)


Sumptuous velvet waves at Cadogan Hall
On Tuesday night at Cadogan Hall near Sloane Square the audience was treated to an expertly mastered programme of 20th century Polish music by Górecki, Lutoslawski and Szymanovski as well as the Overture, St. Francis of Assisi by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. The latter had its London premiere that night.
The evening commenced with Henryk Mikolaj Górecki's Three Pieces in Old Style for orchestra, written in 1963. Górecki, who was born in Poland in 1933 and died last year, studied composition with Boleslav Szabelski, a former student of Karol Szymanovski and was a fore-runner of the 1950's Polish avant-garde. During his studies in Paris in the early 60s Górecki met his famous composer colleagues Pierre Boulez, Olivier Messiaen and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Górecki's Three Pieces in Old Style show his interest in ancient Polish religious and folk traditions; the sound world uses modal archaic musical language that monks used in the 16th century. The first and third pieces are in the aeolian mode which has a natural and open sound and would consist only of white keys on the piano while the second piece is an actual folk dance. In this folk dance the orchestra indulges in a succulent velvet texture but the pure beauty of sound fails to evoke feelings of intense passion. In the third piece Górecki even quotes a fragment taken from an anonymous 16th century song. Here the luscious pedal note played by the double basses growls below the sighing higher strings which is intercepted by a brief chorale with pure and beautiful sound.
To hear the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is a treat for any ear with its supple sumptuous waves pushing to and fro, outlined beautifully by the clear flute melodies, the warm clarinets, the trumpet fanfares precise as lightning and the shivering percussion and piano elements. The excellent unity and warmth of sound of the string section filled the hall. Conductor Christopher Austin, one of the UK's foremost experts on contemporary music, having enjoyed an education as a composer himself, showed the swelling waves in the music wonderfully with his supple swan-like hand and wrist movements as well as communicating brilliantly with the orchestra on a pleasant personal level.
After this display of rich orchestral colours the sparce opening of Lutosawski's cello concerto, in which the soloist plays heartbeats of a single gruff note alone for a long time before the orchestra joins in, gave a marked change to the concert's atmosphere. The Warsawian composer, conductor and violinist Witold Lutoslawski wrote his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in 1970 for the world well-loved Russian cello titan Mstislav Rostropovich. Having struggled with the Soviet system all his life Rostropovich embraced Lutoslawski's idea of the concerto being a conflict between an individual and the whole society. The young Danish cellist Jakob Kullberg tried to match the sense of the individual's struggle with the society but it seemed like a lonesome voice trying to escape from the orchestra's grandure. Having said that, Kullberg showed technically brilliant virtuosity and a knack for Lutoslawski's sound effects in the concerto's cello antics and displayed his mastery of a gorgeous warm and smoothly sonorous cello sound in his encore, from a solo cello suite by J.S. Bach.
Although Austin was self confident in his expert approach to the scores and in his musical collaboration with the orchestra and soloists, it seemed as if he demurely took a step back behind the music. However one might wish for a greater emotional involvement with the musical fire, a sense of "sweat, blood and tears".
The refreshing and turbulent opening of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' Overture to an Opera which he never wrote made way to an exciting set of harmonic progressions, outlined by sharp Glockenspiel spikes. This composition was a particular pleasure to listen to. Its musical style is well rooted in early 20th century traditions as well bringing a very individual and fresh view on music to life. More than anything Christopher Austin was in his best element here, guiding the orchestra through the musical landscape.
Although the orchestra's unique sound world and the conductor's great leading capabilities were a joy to watch and listen to, the impression of a sense that something greater, more passionate and more fulfilled was missing prevailed until the Venezuelan-born, half Italian violin virtuoso Giovanni Guzzo strode out on stage and filled the hall with his commanding presence and plucked a couple of heart strings in the heightened romantic Szymanovski Violin Concerto no. 2 at the end of the concert. Szymanovski's very evocative sound structures build up entire epic dream landscapes. At his best when soaring way up high over the warm and rich strings Guzzo impressed also in the diabolically demanding cadenza of violin fireworks and flying chords as if he and his violin had suddenly turned into light silver butterfly wings. The passionate violinist never wavered in his musical dedication to living out the music for his audience.

Submitted by Alexandra Sugars on 30th October 2011


Royal Philharmonic Orchestra plays Górecki, Lutosławski, Maxwell Davies & Szymanowski with Jakob Kullberg & Giovanni Guzzo

Not your typical RPO programme and with a clunky title: “Polish Contemporary Music Across Europe With Friends”. Perhaps it was the heavy dose of the unfamiliar that kept the faithful away; whatever the reason, an abysmally small audience for heard two astonishing soloists and a mouth-watering programme celebrate Poland's presidency of the European Union and assert a convincing case for Poland having one of the most ravishing musical traditions of the twentieth-century.
Fitting, given the EU presidency, to begin with a composer whose signature sound places him as firmly within a broader Eastern European school as it does a more specifically Polish one. Henryk Górecki, who died last year, found late fame with his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, though it’s often cited as atypical of his work. The first of his Three Pieces in Old Style, though, immediately foreshadowed the surging and swelling string-dominated tumult of the ubiquitous Symphony. A rustic Bartokian simplicity makes for a rousing second piece, while the final one recalls the first, with misty clusters hanging over the churning undercurrent before making way for more-resolute music; all generously weighted by the sure body of the RPO strings.
Then, to Witold Lutosławski, mid-century Poland's leading composer, though one who never acquired the reputation for impenetrability suffered by many of his Western European contemporaries. Even at his most experimental, Lutosławski's music retains its transparency and fluidity; never more so than in his darkly expressive Cello Concerto of 1970. Any soloist coming to the work sits in the shadow of Rostropovich, the most emotionally searing of cellists and the man for whom the work was composed. Rostropovich's playing combined unceasing virtuosity with the most unremitting intensity, so it's hardly surprising that, by comparison, Danish cellist Jakob Kullberg initially seemed a little cool. His opening narration was not as flowing or involved as could be, but he soon dug into his warm and deep tone, and by the end he had ramped up his struggle with the battering orchestra to the level of an anguished scream. Christopher Austin and the RPO navigated the complicated system of cues and overlaps seamlessly. Kullberg returned, joking “let’s play it again!” before offering some unaccompanied Bach with unaffected earthy wisdom; no piety or reverence here.
The break in the concert's thematic thread was the London première of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's Overture St Francis of Assisi, offered between two Polish concertos without explanation, but rewarding nonetheless. Without a more thorough guide to the work than that given by Sir Peter in the programme note, it's difficult to say which episodes of St Francis's life were being dealt with in the music, but the interplay of his complex yet carefully orchestrated moments of violent energy and the calming Orkney-inflected plainsong are musically interesting in their own right. Davies’s musical imagination still commands attention, never more so than in the glittering and trilling conclusion.
Finally, a warm embrace of a work: Szymanowski’s ecstatic, even orgasmic, Second Violin Concerto, filling the hall with radiant harmony and power and given a truly magnetic performance by Venezuelan violinist Giovanni Guzzo. Matching Kullberg for warmth and presence, Guzzo’s technique was immaculate, and his Szymanowski was also stylish and driven. He ripped through the cadenza with terrific verve and left me wanting to hear much more from him. If there was a problem, it was that his solo line was often swallowed by the rich orchestral texture, particularly in the work’s opening stages. But this must surely be Szymanowski’s miscalculation and not that of Austin and the RPO, whose contribution was heady and sensuous throughout.

Andrew Morris (October 25, 2011)