VIDA Guitar Quartet at King’s Place

Why aren’t there more guitar quartets? The possibilities for new repertoire are exhilarating. How often do you get to hear the works of Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams on guitar? The guitar can be such a quiet, lonely instrument, suitable for neither orchestras nor most ensembles. How wonderful it is to see four of these lonely creatures together, and creating such a big sound!

At least there are a few guitar quartets. And VIDA Guitar Quartet are clearly among the best. I caught them a couple of nights ago. It was a Bach-themed concert: after two contemporary pieces unrelated to Bach, they launched into a fantastic arrangement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, followed by Prelude and Fugue Nos. 2 & 4 by Mendelssohn, Bacanas Brasileiras Nos. 4 & 5 by Villa-Lobos, and two Bach-inspired premieres by Laura Snowden and Howard Skempton. The third movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is on YouTube:

Perhaps it’s my decrepit speaker, but this video, impressive though it is, doesn’t quite capture the extraordinary colour of the quartet. Each part was clearly separated. They could have sounded quite homogeneous; unlike a string quartet they all share the same range, except for one seven-string guitar, and are essentially all playing the same instrument (as opposed to violins, viola and cello). However, with the right musicians the sound world of the guitar is exceptionally varied — the string can be attacked in so many ways. One gets a better sense of this by watching the short promo for VIDA’s upcoming album (the music they are playing is from Light Perpetuum by Laura Snowden):

Following an incredible mishap — a tuner that fell inside the guitar — they ended with piece by British composer Howard Skempton. He titled it Bach variation for four guitars, but it was really an arrangement of a Bach fugue (I forget which one) — the twist being that it used only natural harmonics (except for the chap who lost his tuner; he played the bass line on a seven- string guitar). It was like listening to a music box but without any hint of the mechanical. The sound was warm and round, almost perfect.

As there isn’t a clip of Skempton’s Bach varation, here is VIDA playing Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite. Warlock was a very strange chap indeed: an Etonian, occultist (hence his surname), composer, writer, and somewhat important figure in the revival of early English music. His pieces were clearly influenced by Elizabethan music and have a certain charm.

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Purcell’s King Arthur at the Barbican

Brexity Brexity Brexity Brexit. This might as well have been the revised title of this opera. That, or A Brexit Fantasia with Purcellian Interruptions. Or more prosaically, King Arthur and the Knights of the Exiting the European Union Select Committee.

King Arthur is an English semi-opera — that is, a combination of theatre and opera where the protagonists are actors and do not sing. As a result, little of the music makes explicit reference to the Arthurian legend, enabling director Daisy Evans to discard the story and in its place create a ‘debate piece’, as she called it, on contemporary British politics.

Her reasoning is thus: King Arthur is a symbol of Britishness; the nationalist sentiments in the opera cannot be convincingly sung by a modern singer in light of modern developments; therefore we need a production that probes and questions. Evans does this through an incoherent miscellany of poetry spoken in between the songs and music (which needless to say she has radically reordered). From the programme:

This production isn’t about King Arthur the legend, it’s about the idea of King Arthur and the values that he embodies. The full title of the original piece is King Arthur or The British Worthy, and what we’re exploring here is whether that really is the model of British worthiness we still want to stand up for.

These kinds of questions are invariably posed by people who already have a very firm answer, but wish to be sly about it. They can always pull a face and feign innocence, saying ‘what, I was only asking a question?!’

The opera began with the singers, dressed causally, descending into the hall like a flock of latecomers. Each singer wore a plastic rectangle hanging from their neck, either in red or blue. A sign to the left of the stage read ‘Leave & Remain’ (later signs included ‘men and women’, and the inevitable ‘us and them’). Narrator Ray Fearon took centre stage and began reciting a poem from Ali Smith’s post-Brexit book Autumn:

All across the country, people felt unsafe.
All across the country, people were laughing their heads off.
All across the country, people felt legitimised.

And so on. This was set up as call and response. Fearon would shout ‘All across the country’ and the singers would shout back ‘people felt legitimised’. The scene ended with Fearon reciting The Bloody Sire by Robinson Jeffers while the singers filmed him with their smartphones.

Later ‘highlights’ included the singers ripping up newspapers — fake news! — and a group of drunken (loutish?) men rowdily singing ‘Old England, Old England, And heigh for the honour of old England.’ One suspects this was meant to ridicule, or at least portray suspiciously, working class patriotism.

Then there was a passage from Shakespeare’s Henry V and the triumphant song ‘Come if you dare’, neither of which one can object to in and of themselves, and the latter of which is one of my favourite songs to sing in the shower (‘Triumphant with spoils of our vanquished invaders!’) The interval came and I left. Fifty minutes of politicised and ‘modernised’ Purcell was already too much. So this is a sort of semi-review of a semi-opera, I guess.

The most annoying thing is that there was no reason for it to be so bad. Superb orchestra, superb cast, superb music, and superb story. But a spanner had to be thrown in the works because the director wanted the production to be relevant. Yet the Arthurian legend is one of the few remaining historic cultural bonds. It’s not exactly an out-of-date of irrelevant myth that needs to be overhauled in light of contemporary events. But obviously Ms Evans disagrees. She would rather substitute the rarity and wonder of an opera for the banality of politics.

Paul O’Dette at Wigmore Hall

I only found it about it this morning, and impulsively I hopped onto the next train, just managing to get to London in time for this afternoon recital by the great American lutenist Paul O’Dette. The programme consisted entirely of English lute music, including O’Dette’s own arrangements of William Byrd’s keyboard music. It’s a fair representation of the music of the time, often called the ‘golden age’ of English lute music (approx. 1580-1620). Lots of dance music — almaines, pavans and galliards — and popular tunes, alongside Dowland’s two ‘Farewell’ fantasies. The programme is more or less the happier side of the lute, more dance than counterpoint, more extravagance than reflection. None of this is a dismissal of the music — a John Johnson pavan is generally as artful and interesting as a fantasie, though in different ways.

Paul O’Dette played the challenging show-off pieces with apparent ease. The last piece in the programme was Daniel Bacheler’s variations on ‘Monsieur’s Almaine’, a tour de force of tremolo playing and rapid passages. His playing of the Dowland ‘Farewell’ fantasie (P3), a slow, chromatic and contrapuntal piece of incredible beauty, was less convincing. I felt it was too fast, for one, and just not as expressive as, say, Nigel North, who manages to get that warmth and purposeful expression O’Dette somewhat lacks. It probably didn’t help that the piece was repeatedly interrupted by one man’s prolific and unstifled coughing. (This same man, as well as the woman next to him, presumably his wife, was asleep for the first part of the concert, lightly snoring.)

A very pleasant lady next to me said she found the music soothing, which it indeed is, but I also gently pointed out to her that the pieces aren’t so soothing to play, not only because of difficulty, but also because of the remarkable dissonances in pieces like the Dowland ‘Farewell’ fantasie. Though admittedly the lute might need a venue even smaller than Wigmore Hall to be at its most brilliant. I was about twelve rows back, and even there it was beginning to sound a bit distant, despite O’Dette’s loud (and occasionally harsh) playing.

O’Dette is also an excellent writer, so I was glad to see that he wrote his own programme notes. Particularly interesting was the few paragraphs on playing Byrd’s keyboard music on the lute, how much interpretative freedom lutenists gave themselves and some of the technical challenges.

An aside, at one point I saw O’Dette adjust his frets. Lute frets are not fixed; they are gut strings tied around the neck. You can change the intonation this way (the lute is a pre-equal temperament instrument). I have wondered whether lutenists adjust the frets for different pieces, especially for different keys — perhaps he was doing this?

Why is Beethoven’s Ninth so popular?

I’m generally omnivorous in my music tastes. And I try to approach the great works especially with total humility and little suspicion. But there’s one notable exception: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Recently I attended a performance of the symphony, which was met with ferocious applause and a stomping, standing ovation. I must have been one of the few who did not stand — and the only one who did so out of stubbornness, not age or disability. I wonder why the Ninth gets such a raucous reception? At first, one suspects politics. The concert was a conspicuously European-themed Proms concert: first was James MacMillan’s European Requiem (though not the Brexit piece many doubtless thought), then the Ninth. Dozens of little EU flags were waved, and several supersized flags were draped over the railing by Prommers.

But politics, if it matters at all, is a peripheral reason for why the work is so adored. (Nor is its modern appropriation as a universalist secular hymn why I dislike it.) Not long ago the Ninth was performed on every penultimate night of the Proms. It’s an exceptionally popular work, particularly with a Proms audience. And the sheer volume of the choral finale filling the vast space of the Albert Hall is admittedly impressive.

However, as Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford writes, ‘the Ninth has attained the kind of ubiquity that threatens to gut any artwork’. Think Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Faure’s Pavane. And indeed it is the most popular part I dislike most: the interminable choral section blu-tacked onto the fourth movement. This pushes the symphony to way over an hour (was it the longest symphony to date?). Following what Wagner called a ‘horror fanfare’ and a bizarre recapitulation of the first three movements, the anticipated moment arrives. First the tune is played on the cellos and double basses, expanding out to the rest of the orchestra, then, after another ‘horror fanfare’, comes the elongated, almost Oratorio-length variation on the Ode to Joy theme.

Interestingly, this is what Verdi, a man who knew a thing or two about choral writing, had to say about the finale:

… Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, marvellous in the first three movements, [is] very badly set in the last. No one will ever approach the sublimity of the first movement, but it will be an easy task to write as badly for voices as in the last movement. And supported by the authority of Beethoven, they will all shout: “That’s the way to do it…”

Quite a number of contemporary critics disliked the symphony. Many blamed its failings on — yep, you guessed it — Beethoven’s deafness. They found it too harmonically extreme, not sufficiently ‘beautiful’, or simply too long and trying. These critics weren’t in the majority. But as musicologist Nicholas Cook points out, had the symphony been written by Berlioz it would likely have been roundly rejected ‘as eccentric, wilful, and probably incompetent too’. (Berlioz of course loved the symphony.)

My problem might be a prejudice against the grandiose. Seldom do musical forms become more humble with time; they often seem to metastasise. It then takes someone like Arvo Part to do the radical thing: go back to the beginning. When I hear the Ninth, I think to myself, Beethoven did the exiting, celebratory fourth movement much better in the Fifth Symphony and with far less.

Were I musically more competent, I’d be tempted to rewrite the fourth movement without the chorus. But even then, it wouldn’t come close to Beethoven’s true masterpiece: the Seventh Symphony. Riccardo Chailly conducting the Gewandhausorchester:

21st Century Theorbo Music

Matthew Wadsworth is a pretty amazing guy. Although blind, he’s nevertheless become a first-class lutenist and even studied under Nigel North. There’s clearly a stubbornly ambitious streak in him. In addition to his lute playing, he’s trying to break the record for blind motorcycle jumping. An excellent little documentary was made of the whole process.

I saw him perform a couple of weeks ago — lute, that is. He is without a doubt a fine player with a profound understanding of the music he plays. I will say that there were a few wrongs notes and instances of string buzzes — enough to make one slightly uncomfortable. I found myself comparing him to the lutenist Thomas Dunford, who I also saw recently. Dunford can whizz through the fastest passages in a fairly carefree way. Wadsworth doesn’t even try to play that fast; he’s a more contemplative player, whether by choice or not. This actually made him very convincing on something like Robert Johnson’s Pavan in C Minor, which is a less florid and more intense piece. I wish he would do a whole album of Johnson because that and the two Almaynes were just superb — dare I say, they were even better than the versions Nigel North has recorded.

But surely the most interesting thing he played was a newly-written piece for the theorbo. It’s based on The Miller’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and written for Wadsworth by Welsh guitarist and composer Stephen Goss. The piece is structured sort of like a Baroque suite but with a prologue and epilogue. Each movement is supposed to represent a character from the tale. Here’s Wadsworth performing the estampie; the character represented is John:

Wadsworth has since released an album, Late Night Lute, so I’ve had the chance to listen to give The Miller’s Tale another few listens today. I’ve never read Chaucer, and I have to admit that my attempt to do so today ended in impatience with the Middle English language. But the music nonetheless appeals to me. It makes great use of those signature bass strings of the theorbo, and also quite interesting use of harmonics. The theorbo is a weirdly tuned instrument, giving the player an unusual palette to paint with — and paint Goss does. The arpeggiated harmonics in the toccata are a good example of this, creating a truly unique effect, especially with those powerful bass strings. It does sound kind of otherwordly. In fact, much of the piece does, like something old but alien. The estampie above is perhaps a bit different, being more of a lively, rhythmic movement. But the rest are quite meditative, very much playing to Wadsworth’s apparent strengths. I wish we had more composers writing for this rich instrument. As far as I know, the only other example is James MacMillan, whose Since it was the day of preparation… begins with a beautiful theorbo solo.

Anyway. Very much recommend checking out Wadsworth’s new release, available on Spotify, Amazon, and all that. To sign off, here’s Wadsworth performing Robert Johnson’s Care Charming Sleep. It’s a nice performance, but I’m starting to suspect that he might actually be more comfortable on the theorbo.