LSO/Bostridge, Barbican Theatre
Britten and Mahler at twilight. Natural bedfellows despite their conflicting natures. Because just beneath the surface, at the edge of dreams, lurks something in common: the spectre of self-loathing. This is where this London Symphony Orchestra concert took us. Somewhere between life and death, between the small hours, the private hours and the lonely hours.
Nocturne, like Serenade, is Britten at his most coherent and economical – so little on the page, so much conveyed. Initially, a slow oscillation of strings, the poet's imaginings shifting in and out of focus on a twinge of dissonance. And on Shelley's lips, a vision of Pro-metheus unbound. Ian Bostridge sang the words as they might have been spoken for the very first time. His was never just a pretty voice (though it is that – I doubt these songs have been more beautifully sung) but more and more one is feeling the reach of his work.
It's all about connection with the text: the lightness of inflection picking up on the obbligato harp as flecks of moonlight catch the hair of Coleridge's "beauteous boy"; or Middleton's evocation of nocturnal creatures: the words paint vivid pictures if you pitch them right. And the great dramatic moments to be found in the conscientious objections of Wordsworth's The Prelude, timpani-led to the shocking cry of (and here Bostridge hurled his whole body into it): "Sleep no more!" In Britten's ravishing setting of Shakespeare's Sonnet 43, Bostridge's nuancing of that was so subtle as to be virtually invisible – the stuff of which dreams really are made.
Or nightmares. For Mahler, the new beginnings, the "new" music of his 10th Symphony was, I sometimes feel, an attempt to lock out the extra-musical factors in his life and apply himself afresh to his craft. But the two were, of course, inseparable. And it's that tension which makes it so disturbing. Deryck Cooke, more than anyone who has attempted a performing version of the unfinished score, takes his cue from the gaunt, vertical texturing of the fully-scored opening Adagio in realising the character and sound of the rest.
Mahler had seen the future and the dance of life was drawn in rigorous counterpoint. Mark Wigglesworth and the LSO took it on ferociously, the new-found "presence" of the woodwinds in the newly tweaked acoustics of Barbican Hall making for real pungency. The brass are still implacable. It's a "loud" hall for climaxes, now more than ever. But "The Devil dances it with me", said Mahler of the second scherzo, and you'd better believe he did.
My only reservations here were mainly to do with Wigglesworth's ability to sustain the exceptionally broad arc of his long first movement along with what later proved to be quite the wrong sound – too open, too sharp – for the shocking "muffled drum" strokes of the finale. But when stalking tuba finally gave way to transcendent flute and the most heavenly tune Mahler ever wrote rose like some kind of phoenix from the orchestra, it was possible to believe again that there was yet light in his life. And death.
Tania Chen, The Warehouse, London
Another gruelling evening in the Cutting Edge series of newish work. Is the title meant ironically? Whatever it cuts it isn't fresh ground, for this tour makes little contact outside itself, some of it harking back to the bad old days when contemporary classical meant the unsociable in pursuit of the unlistenable. Still, it's a useful way to keep in touch with the byways of British composition, and Thursday's two concerts covered a fair range.
First up was the strange world, frozen in time, of the sometime radical experimentalists, as Tania Chen played piano pieces by Michael Parsons and Cornelius Cardew. The music spanned half a century but it maintained complete integrity of style in its spare, spiky and predominantly dry way – this was Cardew before he went political and populist. Every note, or occasionally cluster, counted and was carefully weighed in a feat of huge concentration by Chen, who played the pieces as a continuous sequence without soliciting applause. This meant you couldn't tell which were meant to be grouped together, or even which composer was which. About 80 people listened in tense silence: no coughing but a constant undercurrent of creaking chairs, a speciality of this otherwise attractive though under-resourced venue.
The audience approached 100 for the second concert which began with an oasis of calm in a composer portrait of Laurence Crane, played by the fine and devoted musicians of the Apartment House ensemble. This is music so simple that it shouldn't work. Typically, slow progressions of chords, regularly grouped and separated by silences, recur in a straightforward pattern – and that's all.
Yet every piece had soft, magical qualities that kept you riveted. Partly it's the beguilingly chosen chords themselves, but mostly it's the way they made the players and listeners focus. The very simplest, Bobby J for solo electric guitar, needed some effort to produce and sustain evenly its ethereal sounds, and created a striking sense of hard-won peace. Crane asked a clarinettist (Andrew Sparling) to keep playing the same two notes against short groups of string chords. Riis, a little more complex – the chords were unpredictable – was like a poem about human fallibility, playing quiet harmonics, set against the perfect certainty of an electric keyboard.
The final featured composer was James Clarke, a very different animal. Remnants of chords were set upon, deconstructed, torn and attacked with external ferocity and a sense of barely imaginable inner torment. One of the four pieces, La violenza delle idee, had a more suppressed air and allowed Clarke to dwell for a while on some fetching bent-note effects for guitar and strings, like a Japanese koto. Otherwise the session was a real set-to, requiring the percussionist to hit metal hard and switch instruments constantly in a scenic but non-virtuoso way, rather like a baby with an activity centre.
This pointed up a common feature of the evening, a lack of excitement in the act of performance. Still the "cutting edge" mistrusts anything visual. Apartment House's delivery of music like Clarke's would look a lot more appropriate if they dressed in leather and flagellated one another between pieces.
The second concert will be broadcast tonight on Radio 3 at 10.45pm
Eels, Brixton Academy London
It's only to be expected, I suppose, that Mark "E" Everett, the eccentric Eels frontman, barely acknowledges our presence for the first hour of his set. It's not until Butch, the Stetson'd drummer who looks as if he's just stepped off the set of The Dukes Of Hazzard, comes forward to sing a winsome little ditty about being a clown who "wears his make-up upside down", that Everett starts cracking the odd joke. Alas, we can't hear him anyway.
Not that the absence of small talk makes us love him any less. In a perverse role reversal, we seek his approval. Not only is this a man who has suffered immeasurably, who sings blithely about finding his sister dead on the bathroom floor and clearing out the attic of his dead parents, but who exudes charisma without even having to open his mouth.
The orchestral inclinations of the band's last tour are long gone. In their place we have the luminous presence of the multi-instrumentalist and producer John Parish whose insistently abrasive guitars are the perfect foil to Everett's crushing melancholia.
Unsuitably attired in a boiler suit and a woolly hat – the hat stays on until the end despite the heat – Everett croaks out each word as if he really is carrying the world's weight on his shoulders. The hymn to isolation "Bus Stop Boxer" and the gorgeously poetic "Woman Driving Man Sleeping" are just two of the songs performed from the new album, the excellent Souljacker. One peculiar love song "World Of Shit", in which Everett sings "Baby, I confess/I am quite a mess" proves that the passing of time hasn't exactly laid his ghosts to rest.
But the performance is not all doom and gloom. The emotional equilibrium is restored with "Mr E's Beautiful Blues" the closest this singer's ever got to writing a pop song, during which the leg of a lone crowd surfer can be seen disappearing in front of the stage. Tracks such as "I Like Birds" and "Cancer For The Cure", though unassailably bleak, are also given the full rock treatment and prompt a surge of energy from the crowd.
Given the emotional extremes reached by Everett in just 90 minutes, it's the kind of gig where you emerge feeling bruised and battered and not altogether sure whether or not you've enjoyed yourself. But, then again, maybe enjoyment is never on the cards where Eels are concerned.
I've only one real gripe. The new set-up seems to have triggered a predilection for Pink Floyd-style noodling. In the middle of an otherwise strong set is interrupted by a five-minute psychedelic wig-out rounded off by another few minutes of white nose. Put simply, it doesn't suit them.
Fiona SturgesReuse content