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S&H report

Sapporo Symphony Orchestra, Barbican 30 October;   LSO , 31 October;  Britten Master Class 30 Oct , Guildhall School (PGW)



Taking a first opportunity since returning from abroad to appraise the acoustics of the re-opened, refurbished Barbican Hall, I heard the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Tadaaki Otaka.  Their tour of seven major UK cities was expensively sponsored, but a programme of Takemitzu, Mozart (D minor Concerto/John Lill) and Mahler 4 was dispiriting, leaving one national critic so depressed that he declared himself in urgent need of Sapporo beer!  They were well disciplined, but it was the sort of music-making that makes one tend to agree with those who think the large symphony orchestra is becoming something of an anachronism.  From the 4th row of the circle, the sound was bright and clear, but the violins were lack-lustre playing on their E strings.  The plus point was that the new air conditioning system has achieved a virtually silent background, so that for me the pauses in the music were the best thing in the evening, and it is now possible there to risk really quiet pianissimi in this large space (see Sound in Silence - the acoustics of the KKL Concert Hall at Lucerne).

The next night, from similar seats, the LSO under Mariss Jansons failed to engage my interest in Brahms Symphony No 3 (I had been spoiled for large-orchestra Brahms by the recent Paavo Berglund recordings with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe - Ondine ODE990-2T) and I was again slightly troubled by the edgy tone of the violins, not so different from the Japanese the previous night, so suggesting that some acoustical 'fine-tuning' may still be desirable. 

However, the second half was a very different matter.  The strings sounded fine, with the cellos and basses sonorous as one expects from the LSO, and  Jansons, conducting without baton, conveyed his vision effectively; were these pieces given a larger share of rehearsal time?  This was a programme which had no obvious thematic coherence, but some of the best known Mahler Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs (Thomas Hampson on commanding form) made a fascinating juxtaposition with Ravel's La Valse - their orchestrations are so different, but both so sharp and telling.  The Mahler songs of rural legend and war benefited from the new sound at the Barbican, and Hampson got across the storytelling easily to show-stopping acclamation.  La Valse was dark and thrilling in its depiction of a world so far from Johann Strauss. 

A chance to hear the great accompanist Graham Johnson (Senior Professor of Accompaniment at The Guildhall School of Music & Drama) before the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra, in a public Master Class next door to the Barbican Hall, was too good to miss. It proved to be an enthralling way to spend the afternoon.  The Guildhall School's lively programme of events open to the public, most of them admission free, is well worth keeping in mind (programme details and mailing list from www.gsmd.ac.uk). Graham Johnson, preparing students for a Britten mini-festival, Let the Florid Music Praise, dispensed a wealth of learning and good advice, achieving a perfect balance between the (primary) needs of the participants and the entertainment of the audience with avuncular reminiscences of Britten's character and his very precise requirements. He was on excellent terms with the alert, responsive singers, some of them not British nationals and discovering the subtle pitfalls of a language which can be hard to sing, and especially if every word (some of them unusual or archaic) is not understood.

Under his tutelage, Michelle Jueno (mezzo) modified her approach to Walter de la Mare songs from 'Tit for Tat' by the teenage Britten (reworked for publication) and baritone John Evans was helped to keep the anger in the eponymous Tit for Tat song itself, an early attack upon hunting and cruelty to animals, 'under the surface' with for stronger effect later. And so on for several absorbing hours, through 'Friday Afternoons' to 'Winter Words', taking in some Folksong settings (with a wonderful cameo about how the 'wrong notes' accompaniments outraged the Cecil Sharp House fraternity, self-appointed preservers of the purity of English Folk Song), before transferring to the Barbican Hall.

I have often reminded readers of Seen&Heard that the best of London's music making is frequently to be heard in the Music Colleges and University Departments and I would urge everyone to make contact and keep in touch with their nearest one.

Peter Grahame Woolf

The Britten concerts 'Let the Florid Music Praise'  run from Thursday, 22nd to Tuesday, 27th November 2001

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