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Concert highlights of 2014 – and one big stinker

2014 was another busy year on the London concert scene. Here (in chronological order) are my favourite concerts of the many I went to, and one I hope to forget (but not for the obvious reasons)

The Best

Gary Hoffman Brahms recital, Wigmore Hall, January

When I interviewed Hoffman for The Strad in advance of this concert, he explained his identification with the great composer: ‘There’s something about Brahms and what he reveals in his music that makes me feel a great sense of well-being. There’s nothing arrogant in it. There’s a lot of doubt in the music and in the man, and a reticence to reveal everything, yet in the end he wants to. It seems to resonate with me and I’m sure a lot of people feel that.’ It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that Hoffman’s performance, with pianist David Selig, came with such authority and his usual sincerity and lack of show. Expressing the full range of Brahms’s sentiments, whether well-being or doubt, the performance never verged into sentimental and Hoffman’s beautiful Amati sounded wonderful. It was an added bonus to hear my favourite violin sonata, the G major, in a cello arrangement that works surprisingly well.

Debussy Quartet and Circa performing Opus, Barbican Theatre, February

The Debussy Quartet players may not have been throwing their bodies around the stage of the Barbican Theatre like bouncy balls, hula hoops or darts, as the acrobats of the Circa troop were wont, but their feat of memorising three Shostakovich quartets, and even performing them blindfolded, was astonishing on its own terms. The choreography, by turns explosive, expressive or simple, worked perfectly to illuminate Shostakovich’s many moods, whether savage, serene or sad. Having the quartet players centre stage and pivotal to the action meant that sound and movement were integrated brilliantly. It’s always exciting to see quartet music taken out of the context of the concert hall, and long may these sorts of projects continue to develop, although I’m not sure how they might top Opus: maybe next time the quartet players will learn to use a trapeze.

Zeitfenster Festival, Radialsystem V, Berlin, April

Free to wander between various listening experiences on different floors of the old warehouse that is now one of Berlin’s exciting music venues, I inevitably ended up in the room with the comfortable mattresses. But the experience of listening to music horizontally, in complete relaxation and focus, was just one of the exciting features of the ‘On the Border’ concert of the Zeitfenster festival of early music. With all defences down, the combinations of Swedish fiddling and Bach, and Baroque string ensemble with modern electronic music, made complete sense. But, of course – why wouldn’t it?

Kopelman Quartet, Wigmore Hall, June

The Russian players offered a model in quartet playing – sheer beauty, purity of intonation, simplicity, emotional range, and complete unanimity of sound and conception. They also proved the point made here by Christoph Richter, that eye contact itself does not lead to togetherness in chamber music: barely lifting their eyes to each other apart at from a few key points they breathed and played as one giant organism. And for violin geeks, the exquisitely flowing and powerful bowing arms of the violinists demonstrated the unsurpassed efficiency of the great Russian school of violin playing.

Buskaid, Queen Elizabeth Hall, July

Rosemary Nalden has been teaching violin to children in impoverished South African townships since 1992 and in 1997 she formed the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble, which has toured the world and produced several players who have gone on to professional music careers. The group has wowed at the BBC Proms and numbers John Eliot Gardiner as a supporter, and it’s not hard to see why. Their music ranges from Rameau and Muffat to Brahms, Hubay and Karl Jenkins, as well as African Kwela and gospel music. Their techniques are impeccable, with beautifully relaxed bow holds (Nalden was an acolyte of Sheila Nelson) and a resplendent sound, even on instruments that must be fairly basic. But most remarkable is how they understand the rhythms of Baroque music, composed in a world so far away from theirs and yet so similar in intent. It may be heinous to say, but I enjoyed their Rameau more than I did William Christie’s at the Proms this year with Les Arts Florissants. Baroque music should always swing like this.

Womad, Charlton Park, July

Choice – at Womad, as in life, it’s a wonderful thing, but can sometimes drive you delirious. So many great artists, so little time. But the sun shone most of the weekend so I wasn’t going to complain. String discoveries for me this year were Tunisian violinist Zied Zouari and Swedish cellist Linnea Olson. Old favourites included Youssu N’Dour with his beautifully smokey timbre, and the phenomenal guitar playing of Richard Thompson. But this year it was all about collaborations and my favourites were old-time US banjo player Don Flemons and English guitarist Martin Simpson combining their respective traditions, as did Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita. Read my review here.

Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, BBC Proms, August

The orchestral playing from the Hungarians in Brahms’s Symphonies no.3 and no.4 was astonishing – the finest I’ve heard in years for its clarity, nuance, and sheer range, from classical elegance to folk drive. This was chamber music on an orchestral scale, with Fischer weaving a spell over his players and the audience alike. Their playing was only topped by their singing – the orchestra came out to sing an encore, Brahms’s Abendständchen, sending us all away with tingles down our spines and wondering whether any other orchestra in the world would dare, want or be able to pull off such a feat. Read my review here.

Amsterdam Cello Biënnale, Musiekgebouw, September

Wall-to-wall concerts, masterclasses, panel discussions and events given by some of the world’s finest cellists, in a beautiful city, for a whole week. The only thing that could make such a proposition any better would be to offer free breakfast. And that’s exactly what we were given before our morning Bach recital every day – freshly-squeezed orange juice, coffee and a croissant, before listening to the most purifying soul music there is to set us up for the day. Thereafter there was an overwhelming amount of cello music to listen to, but of such a vast range, including undiscovered and premiere works, in such a good atmosphere, and of such a calibre, that it didn't pall.

The morning schedule was packed with inspiring masterclasses by cellists such as Laurence Lesser, Anner Bylsma, Mischa Maisky, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Frans Helmerson. Having 2CELLOS give a masterclass might have seemed a good idea at the time, and did indeed draw a full audience, but although the players both proved themselves as good cellists, they had little to say to help the students. And watching Stjepan Hauser flirt with a young female performer was possibly the most groaningly embarrassing moment of 2014 – I don’t think I’ve seen gender politics like that since accidentally watching a Benny Hill episode back in the 1970s.

Having said that, while I felt the 2CELLOS' own concert itself was surprisingly lacklustre, for all the sound and fury, as if they were going through the rockstar motions, one of my favourite moments came with their performance in the closing concert with Mischa Maisky and Giovanni Sollima in AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, with their elders proving that youth doesn’t have the prerogative on passion and energy and downright musical zaniness.

Before that, many other performance highlights included the moment at which the Orchestra of the 18th Century gently parted to reveal Jean-Guihen Queyras the soloist in a Haydn’s Symphony no.13, having been sitting unnoticed in the cello section up to that point. Gary Hoffman produced an intense performance of Bloch’s Prayer, and it is always wonderful to hear Natalia Gutman, even if she wasn’t on top form this time, rumour had it, suffering with back pain. On the last day Maisky so utterly inhabited the role of Don Quixote that one expected to see a horse at the side of the stage to carry him off. And indeed, by that point I think most of the audience needed to be carried off and lain down in a dark room to recover.

Bruno Giuranna, Guildhall School Viola Open Day, Milton Court, November

Bruno Giuranna

The great pedagogue and viola player (whom I interviewed here) performed Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata to only a small audience as part of a viola day organised by Matthew Jones, but maybe that intimacy made it all the more special an event. With his impeccable playing, the 81-year-old proved that age may not be used as an excuse for bad intonation or sound quality, and the elegance, simplicity and lack of pretension of his interpretation offered a lesson to all young players. Maybe promoters will also learn that age, and its correlated wisdom, is something to be cherished and valued in performers such as Giuranna, and to pay them a little more attention.

Bellowhead, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, November

I thought my favourite band had ‘jumped the shark’ with their latest CD, Revival, their sound verging on poppy, over-produced and clean, their arrangements suddenly a little conventional. After seven years of full-hearted and committed groupiedom, having been thunderstruck by their concert in the Floral Hall of the Royal Opera House in 2007, I was about to turn my back and sadly move on. Nothing lasts forever, does it? Out of sheer habit I booked to see them at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and the raucously ensuing evening reminded me of what I fell for in the first place: the massive excitement they generate as a live band, the specific talents of each member, the wildly inventive arrangements that bring to life the rich historic songs of the English folk tradition, and the sheer force and originality of their sound and personality. I may remain sceptical about future CD releases, but I won’t be able to help myself book tickets to their next London gig. And the truth remains: moshing to London Town or New York Girls with complete abandon is one of the great joys of life.

London Music Masters Bridge Project, Royal Festival Hall, November

We’re told to despair about young children, their attention spans and their interest in classical music. So to see nearly a hundred young ones on stage at the Royal Festival Hall, all of them rapt with attention, many of them excitedly brandishing violins, brings a lump to the throat. These were the young students from Lambeth schools who are being supported by the Bridge Project in learning the violin and engaging in music. The highlight of the performance of string tunes and group pieces, some accompanied by members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, was their imagining of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, full of poetic images such as zombies, dragons, cobwebs and skeletons, an interpretation with which I’m sure the composer would have identified.

Regina Carter, Queen Elizabeth Hall, December

Regina Carter. Photo: Barbara Barefield

I interviewed the American jazz violinist ahead of her visit to the London Jazz Festival – the article will go online in the next couple of weeks – and spent the week beforehand looping her new Southern Comfort CD, the basis for her concert. So I may have been predisposed to liking the music – much of it based on the folk songs her grandfather grew up listening to. But live she is even more impressive – she has fantastic chops that find their way right the way round the instrument, discovering sound qualities, moods and effects that most classical players couldn’t even begin to imagine. She’s a charismatic performer, but humble and generous with her incredibly talented band. The Queen Elizabeth Hall was woefully underfull for the concert, though – Carter deserves a huge following. Sign up to Elbow Music newsletters to make sure you see my interview with her.

Honourable mentions

Salsa Celtica, Rich Mix, March

Hilary Hahn, Wigmore Hall, May

Classical Kicks, Ronnie Scott, July

Samy Bishai, Vortex, September

Daniil Trifonov, Royal Festival Hall, September

Joshua Bell, Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Cadogan Hall, October

The Most Disappointing

Kyung-Wha Chung, Royal Festival Hall

I was so looking forwards to this concert. It felt as if every violinist of a certain age in London was – certainly most of the classical music industry turned out to see the legendary violinist. I was a fan of Chung as a child, I’d interviewed her here, spending an interesting hour with her freely discussing her career, the pressures on female soloists, how she has tried to find happiness. I was willing her comeback to be a success, despite being aware of the phenomenal pressure she was under. As ever, the greater the expectation, the worse the disillusionment.

For me, the now-famous incident after the first movement of the Mozart sonata in which she chastised a young child (forever to be known as ‘coughgate’) which was Twittered around the world by the next morning, was the least of the problems. Maybe it was lucky for her that it overshadowed the more fundamental and upsetting one – she didn’t play very well.

She didn’t play badly – she made a beautiful sound generally, if not very varied and there was a strong spirit to her performance. In her Franck Sonata there were glimpses of the player she had been, although this was not an issue of age. I would have forgiven her intonation lapses, especially in the light of her finger problem, and I could even overlook her outburst at the child and put it down to nerves and high expectations. If only I had had some sense that she was trying to communicate the music, or that she was even observing the most basic musical logic. But I found it difficult to follow her phrasing or understand the architecture of the music. This came to a head with Bach’s Chaconne, which made absolutely no musical sense to me. Some people defended it as an old-fashioned performance style and, again, I wouldn’t have minded that, but it still doesn’t explain the jumpy incoherence and counter-intuitive phrasing that robbed poor Bach of all meaning.

Looking back at my interview with her for clues, I had noted the same thing in the way she communicates, sparking in different directions, although in conversation she usually came back to the point. More ominously, she had told me, ‘I train students to play with the conviction that they can do it, that they’re the best. I had this too. My mother and sister would say, “You’re the best, go out and do it.” So I’d say, “Okay, I’m the best.”’ And in a way that’s what this performance felt like – Chung trying to prove this about herself, rather than genuinely caring for the music with humility and humanity. Which, ironically, was the same way she dealt with the coughing child.

That said, no one deserves the online roasting Chung received across the world, mostly by people who weren't at the concert, in an example of the way news sadly works now, in the hysterical race for clickbait.

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