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International Festival: Reviews

Michael Houston

MICHAEL HOUSTON: His coffee break brought about a better second half.
MICHAEL HOUSTON: His coffee break brought about a better second half.

Michael Houston

Queen's Hall

Kate MOLLESON

The pianist Michael Houston is best known in his native New Zealand, where he lives and gives most of his performances. The 61-year-old is not a particularly well-kent name in the UK (which explains the number of empty seats at the Queen's Hall yesterday) but this recital, broadcast live on Radio 3, had the potential to help change that.

Had it ended after its first half it would not have done much for his reputation. Houston opened with the Suite Of Six Short Pieces by Vaughan Williams: a set of miniatures composed two years after the premiere of Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin, several of them revealing VW had studied with Ravel. Both sets return to baroque dance forms, but the Suite is less flamboyant, more English. It was intended as an educational collection and Houston's clean, unshowy approach respected its simple means. The Slow Air was charming, the Rondo gentle.

I expected a whole host of shimmering colours to arrive when Houston turned to Le tombeau itself, but those colours never came and the performance never took off. The Prelude's fountain of notes ran into technical difficulties; the Fugue was jarring, the Forlane monotonous, the fleet-footed Rigaudon clunky, the Menuet slow, the Toccata drab.

Who knows what happened during the interval: maybe Houston drank a strong coffee, maybe he simply needed the first half to warm up. Either way, the rest of the programme was in a different league. Douglas Lilburn's Chaconne was an expansive, affectionate evocation of the New Zealand landscape - Houston gave a vivid, stirring account. His take on Rachmaninov's monumental Second Sonata (especially monumental in its original, unrevised version) was as thoughtful and lyrical as it was muscular.

Polish Radio Choir

Greyfriars Kirk

Michael Tumelty

SO whatever did happen to the Polish avant-garde? I am of the generation lashed and lacerated by Penderecki's Hiroshima Threnody, which had such an impact that it seemed nothing would ever be the same. Then suddenly, in the early 1970s, through his Violin Concerto, Penderecki suddenly turned into Brahms and things looked continually back.

Gorecki, on the other hand, was never a serious man of the front rank of modernists. His increasing devotion to reverential music made him extremely popular, famous, and, presumably, rich; all of which rather left Lutoslawski carrying the futurist baton for Poland.

The wonderful Polish Radio Choir, with its choirmaster Izabela Polakowska at the helm, brought a fine selection of works by Penderecki and Gorecki to Greyfriars' superb early evening series on Monday, drawing, unsurprisingly, a pretty full house. And the Poles are a very superior choir, lean, clean of sound and not remotely lush or blousy in their sonority. Even in their opener, a performance of Gorecki's sumptuous, heart-melting Totus Tuus, there was a disciplined restraint that gave out all the tenderness and beauty without the smush.

There was great beauty too, of a different kind - leaner, more wiry, and with fewer emotional calories - in Penderecki's economic Missa Brevis, though the grand man, and survivor, of that generation, still has a stockpile of juicy dissonances up his sleeve, as he demonstrated in the Agnus Dei From his Polish Requiem.

The gems of the night came from both, in Gorecki's devastatingly profound Hail Mary, and the great choral shout of praise in Penderecki's O Gloriosa Virginum. A splendid night's music from a welcome choir, a group that has something to say through song.

Beyond Zero 1914-18

Festival Theatre

KEITH BRUCE

RESOLUTELY contemporary and geographically insatiably curious, as this year's Explorer series of compilations of their recordings have celebrated, history was one of the only avenues left for the Kronos Quartet to explore.

But it would have been pointless for them to play the music of composers of the past.

The Kronos way is to soundtrack a new compilation of First World War footage by Bill Morrison playing new music by Aleksandra Vrebalov.

The main piece was prefaced by a sequence of other music, under the title Prelude to a Black Hole, which also include Vrebalov (an arrangement of Byzantine chant) alongside Stravinsky, Ravel, Webern, Ives, and Rachmaninov, all recast to be hard to identify individually, and interspersed with recordings of voice, orchestra and barrelhouse piano.

It segued directly into the main work as the screen filled with degraded images of early tanks on manoeuvres.

Much of the rhythm of the piece came from the images - marching men and nurses, cantering horses and the flickering of the film stock - rather than music, and often, to be frank, it was hard to concentrate on the quartet, so captivating were the pictures.

They included a dog trained to find wounded men and a man with prosthetic arms being taught to use a log saw; men sleeping in trenches with their dreams superimposed on the earth above them.

Much of the footage came from the German side of the conflict but the final image of a man parachuting from a stricken bi-plane could only call to mind the falling men whose deaths in 2001 began the "war on terror".

The Kronos play the music of Philip Glass and Clint Mansell at the Usher Hall tonight.

This review appeared in later editions of yesterday's Herald.

London Philharmonic/Jurowski

Usher Hall

Kate MOLLESON

VLADIMIR Jurowski has been principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra since 2007 and seems to have honed his conducting of them down to bare essentials.

At times during this concert he hardly conducted at all, just a flick of the hand or a bob of the head indicating his intentions.

The result was orchestral playing relaxed and engaged: seductively loose around the edges, still clean and properly balanced when need be.

The meat of the programme was Beethoven's Eroica, performed with the kind of verve and daring that can make this symphony sound new every time.

The first movement had swing from the start; Jurowski really made us feel the triple time. He pulled around the tempos and made the transition passages tantalising, almost conspiratorial.

The funeral march was too light-weight to be the symphony's anchor, but the breadth and warmth towards the end of the finale gave this performance its due stature.

The concert opened with Magnus Lindberg's Chorale, a short Bach reworking written by the Finnish composer in 2002.

The LPO shifted through the brightly dissonant chords in block colours, but the ensemble sound was too opaque for much textural detail to come through.

Moldavian violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja played Bartok's Second Violin Concerto - it's the kind of gutsy music that should suit her feisty attack, and she went at it full-throttle. She swivelled and stomped her bare feet, she eyeballed the orchestra's leader as if to urge him to match. Her fireworks were impressive, but she gave us little by way of intrigue or poetry.

This review appeared in later editions of yesterday's Herald.

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