London: just the place for Manet and Brahms and for more-or-less anything else.

I’ve been on a couple of trips to London over the last week. First to visit the Royal Academy of Arts’ Manet exhibition, Manet Portraying Life (see Monday and Tuesday blogs below) and, yesterday, I was up there again yesterday at the Royal Festival Hall to hear the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra playing Brahms and Schoenberg as part of the Southbank Centre’s inspired and year-long The Rest Is Noise festival that is programming 20th Century music and its influences based on Alex Ross’ book of the same name (Published by Picador, 2007).

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), the pioneering composer of 12 tone music, is still a bit of a problem for many concert-goers who are often put off by the theory and the unfamiliarithy of the sounds instead of looking for his music’s mastery of traditional forms and the way he develops them into his own language for the 20th Century. Last night’s audience was entertained by the great man’s very approachable Theme and Variations for Orchestra (1943). He was the first to admit that he owed much of his style to the example of that tougher-than-you-think composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)  and the piece, in many ways, looks back to Brahms’ own orchestral variations, Variations on a Theme by Haydn (1873), which, needless to say, also looks back on his great classical forebears. So it was inspired programming by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and American conductor Michael Tilson Thomas to put the two composers together so that we could appreciate just how important the often considered backward-looking composer was for the new music of the 20th Century.

Having been to the Manet exhibition only days before, it was interesting seeing how two contemporary geniuses,  Johannes Brahms and, the great 19th Century French artist, Édouard Manet (1832-1883), were both men who drew their inspiration from their predecessors to create new techniques for their 20th Century ancestors.

While I was in London, I was also lucky enough to visit another important bastion of 20th Century music, the BBC Broadcasting House (1928) and to see its rather successful new extension opened last month – a pleasing mix of the old Art Deco with some very shapely  and excitingly colourful Modernism.

Last night I was in much bleaker concrete Modernism of the Royal Festival Hall (1951), a building that has taken its time to settle into London’s affections but the ideal place to host this great celebration of 20th. Century music.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the virtuoso orchestras of the World was in fine form and it would have been a thrill to hear them, my first time live, no matter what they played. The conductor, a true star, Michael Tilson Thomas, the music director of of the San Francisco Orchestra, dramatic and oh-so-Viennese,  in the Variations, let Schoenberg  rock in his wildly adventurous orchestration (1937), for a very large Mahlerian orchestra naturally, of Brahms’ lovely Piano Quartet No. 1 (1861) – with no piano of course. I hadn’t heard this piece before but Mr Tilson Thomas allowed the orchestra to show off its superlative instrumental skills and to show just what a show-stopper Schoenberg can be. Hearing Schoenberg in this vein, it comes as  no surprize that he was once George Gershwin’s enthusiastic tennis partner in Hollywood. With this piece Schoenberg has given us another Brahms symphony but one for the Jazz Age. Fascinating.

As much as I enjoyed the Schoenberg and the Schoenberg/Brahms, I was there for the other work on the programme, Brahms’ gigantic and magnificent  Piano Concerto No 2 (1881), a long time favourite of mine since my piano teacher gave me an ancient recording by Artur Schnabel when I was just twelve years old. I have loved it ever since and it now retains that autobiographical frisson that a life-time’s familiarity bestows on any piece of music. I was lucky to have formed an early bond with such a masterpiece. I was lucky too to hear it played by this orchestra with such suave Viennese finesse and with the beefy but poetic Russian-American pianist Yekim Bronfman as soloist. He is new to me and I don’t know how I’ve missed him because he was born to play Brahms. The performance was truly enthralling. Here he is telling an interviewer about the challenges of this concerto:

Sadly there is no recording of him playing the piece with Tilson Thomas and the VPO (could someone arrange for that please) but here is in an extract from the first movement with that other great Germanic orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle.


I’m happily back in Lewes now but it was a week when I was reminded of just how impressive London is a cultural centre and just how lucky I am to live only about an hour away on the train.

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