Wednesday 25 August 2010

Thrilling Brandenburgs from Gardiner topped by stupendous brass

An early start to queue for day seats meant that the hangover battle was marginally tougher than usual, but a local Sloane Square caff's bacon roll did the job and a tenner to hear John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists is a bargain not to pass up.

To my knowledge, I've never seen a Gardiner concert performance before - and it was worth waiting for: the Brandenburg Concertos are, for my money, about as close to musical perfection as you can get. I've known them back-to-front since I was about two feet high thanks to sitting on my dad's knee listening to Menuhin and Pinnock recordings (with the odd Wigmore trip thrown in). You'd never have anything at the Wigmore resembling the chaos of getting the audience into the auditorium in the first place at the Cadogan Hall though: they hadn't manage to get the audience completely in by the time the concert started. I promoted a concert there about four years ago and it was similarly shambolic; they no longer have the excuse of being a new venue.

We kicked thing off with the Concerto No 1, never one of my favourites, and it was a thrilling ride. Gardiner launched into the opening movement at a breakneck pace and the exhilaration never let up. It was a quite extraordinary performance. Swooping changes in colour and dynamics, a perfectly balanced second movement, and crisp main themes were excellent. Dominating everything were the horns. They hurled themselves into the fray, thrashing out cross rhythms like their lives depended on it. The music around may have been refined; the horns bullied and harried, "hooligans breaking up the party" as Gardiner observed during his excellent, and lengthy, discussions with Catherine Bott during the shifting of chairs between pieces. But these weren't modern French horns, but old-school hunting horns - nigh-on impossible to play. Both players demonstrated incredible technical skill - particularly Anneke Scott, whose trills and virtuosity were out of this world.

The slow movement was perfectly balanced, but it was in the beautiful polonaise, buried deep within the menuets (and shortly before the ludicrous horn & oboe trio), which provided one of the moments of the entire concert: following the lulling of the strings with their appoggiatura-like duplets, halfway through, where it breaks into a dance (you know the bit): suddenly, the strings crackled into electric staccato. My jaw nearly hit the floor - it was another thrilling moment. As Wagner once said of Beethoven's seventh symphony, it was the apotheosis of the dance. As a whole, the first concerto was a spectacular success.

The sixth was up next. Never a blockbuster, I've always had a soft spot for it thanks to its unique colours - dark yellows, mauves and browns provided by the instrumentation. With no natural high voices, the violas, gambas and cellos provide a rather oblique feel. The key (B flat) heightens the effect. The first movement, which has no real tune but is just a wash of dark tonal colour in languid, almost turgid rhythms, is almost impressionistic and I can think of no other piece like it. The group, now conductorless, played the colours up marvellously. The final movement, once again, as with so many of the Brandenburgs (as Gardiner emphasised) provided the EBS to show off their dance music making skills.

All the Brandenburgs are special to me but the fourth is especially close to my heart and was a disappointment. Kati Debretzeni was very accomplished in the virtuoso violin role, but I found Rachel Beckett and Catherine Latham - especially Beckett - extremely dull. The first movement plodded along, with one-dimensional staccato-by-numbers recorder playing, with little variation in tone or style. After the joys of what we had heard so far, I felt let down. The slow movement was similarly uninspiring, with only some excellent orchestral balance making up for dull solo playing. Only in the presto finale did the piece really spring to life - sparkling virtuosity from Debretzeni in the background supporting bubbly recorder solo lines. A wonderful ritornello came out of nowhere shortly before the end, reminding us that however brilliant the soloists might be, Gardiner remains the star of the show.

Technically, the day was split into two separate concerts, so after finding a paella stall just off Sloane Square (the only place that served something more promising than rocket ciabattas) it was time to go back for the second part. Among a set of some of the best music ever written, the third shades it as my favourite of all with its perfectly balanced nine solo strings and incredible fugal lines. This, too, was a riveting performance. We heard a lengthy violin improvisation as the non-existent slow movement (perhaps a bit of a partita); various conductors have done "all kinds of wanky things" according to Gardiner (Catherine Bott did well to keep her composure at this point, with producers doubtless falling off their chairs).

As wonderful as the melodies are throughout the Brandenburgs, the best thing of all is the harmonies and most of all the driving pedal basslines. None more so than in the third, where the tension is ratcheted up to fracture point at times with the bass. Although a soloist in the third, special mention must be made of the principal cellist (I will have to wait until I get back to London to check my programme for his name) whose continuo playing I thought was superb.

Gardiner and Bott indulged in some cringeworthy flogging of dead horses in repeatedly describing the music as "funky". They're really "boogying down", we were told. Set toes to curl and ears to shut. That said, I could see an obvious comparison: in the late 70s and early 80s, heavy metal guitar solos became ever more lengthy, virtuosic and gratuitous - and self-indulgently brilliant; I can't think of a better way to describe the harpsichord solo in the fifth. Ever since I was a kid I've loved the way the rest of the band gets out of the way to admire the harpsichord and this was no exception. The slow movement of the fifth always strikes me as the only movement in the entire catalogue that is genuinely dull - although the dainty last movement makes up for it.

We finished on a high note with some facemelting natural trumpet playing from Neil Brough in the second concerto, with oboe, violin and recorder providing able support. Brough didn't put a note wrong throughout and the final movement's lightning pace was a fitting way to finish.

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