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The Bangash brothers keep the fusion dream alive, plus the best of January’s classical concerts

January 8th, 2023

Wigmore Hall – Ben Ealovega

Soul Strings, Wigmore Hall ★★★☆☆

Since the renowned sitar player Ravi Shankar recorded the album East Meets West with the equally renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin back in 1967, the vision of bringing together the Indian and Western classical traditions has never quite gone away. It hangs in the cultural memory, a beautiful dream of something finer and nobler than the restless commercially driven fusions of world music.

On Saturday night at the Wigmore Hall that dream was revived. On stage were the brothers Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash, two great performers on the sarod, a North Indian plucked instrument not so different to the better-known sitar but with a more wiry and penetrating sound. To their left, also seated cross-legged was Anubra Chatterjee, a performer on the pair of tuned drums called tabla. On their right perched on a chair was violinist Jennifer Pike, who won the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2002 and has since blossomed into a soloist of searching musical intelligence – as was evidenced by this concert, in which she played alongside the three Indian musicians.

To prepare the ground for this meeting of two playing styles, Pike gave a pleasingly light, effortless performance of the opening Preludio from Bach’s 3rd Partita.  She then tactfully absented herself from the stage, to allow the three Indian musicians to perform folk melodies from Bengal and Assam, as well as a song by the Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore. This allowed us to savour the essentially vocal aesthetic shaping those rich twanging notes. The melodic line would aspire upward to a note via a slide, or sink down with graceful melancholy, the tuning wavering expressively – all so different to the cool, clear Western way of shaping a tune.

When Pike joined them to perform two compositions by the brothers’ father and “guru” Amjad Ali Khan, perhaps the best-known sarod player alive, we heard that contrast projected with startling clarity. This isn’t to say Pike hasn’t immersed herself deeply in their style, and doesn’t capture the wayward, spontaneously unfolding nature of Indian melodies. But there was something about her sweetly focussed vibrato and cleanly articulated notes that was miles away from the ecstatic flights of the two brothers, which were too intense to be sweet. In its modest graceful way Pike’s contribution felt touchingly sincere, and it certainly brought a genuinely singing, sustained quality to the evening which the two sarod players could only suggest with their twanging notes. If Pike could only emulate their wildness and spontaneity the collaboration could really catch fire. IH

Hear these performers at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland on January 26;

National Youth Orchestra/Bloch, Barbican ★★★★★

It wasn’t just the waltzing encore, The Blue Danube, that made this feel like a New Year concert: everything about this Barbican appearance by the National Youth Orchestra at the start of its four-city tour was a celebration. Not that the festive season meant much time off for these phenomenally talented teenagers, since presenting the NYO’s most serious programme in years will have involved an intense, hard-working holiday.

The National Youth Orchestra at the Barbican - Mark Allan

The National Youth Orchestra at the Barbican – Mark Allan

Three substantial scores were featured under the banner of “Odyssey”, and the concert opened with Britten’s moody Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. The brass registered potently in the sombre Dawn, one advantage of the NYO packing in as many players as possible, certainly a bigger brass section than an opera house pit could accommodate. If this was not the most precise NYO playing ever, the musicians certainly responded to the conductor Alexandre Bloch, making a welcome return to the hall where just over a decade ago he won the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition. The final Storm interlude brought out the best in everyone.

Anna Clyne’s Rift, a symphonic ballet written in 2016, is partly a meditation on the state of our planet. Its three movements are titled Dust, Water and Space, and if its subject matter implies something rather melancholy it also represents a bittersweet journey towards hope. Clyne always has a knack for exciting textures and haunting yet never obvious tunes.

The opening is especially striking, with the violas tracing a lament over the oscillating hum of Tibetan bowls. Other strings soon pick up the theme and the music quickly becomes more complex without losing its emotional directness. The experience of the score’s pulsing, virtuosic close will surely remain with these young musicians for a long time. New music is indeed an important part of the NYO’s mission, and fittingly room was also found – by way of a curtain-raiser to the second half – for a brief presentation by the eleven-strong group of NYO Associates of their own music.

Before we reached the Johann Strauss encore there was Richard Strauss’s mighty tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, its tremendous opening going from the suspenseful to brilliantly blazing. Bloch proved himself a magician here, unlocking the secrets of the work and shaping a taut performance full of lively detail. The leader Isabell Karlsson’s violin solos were nimble, but everyone contributed to a highly accomplished performance of a work full of idealistic striving – and what could be better for a youth orchestra? JA

Further dates for NYO’s Odyssey tour:

Elias String Quartet/Osborne, Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆

One signal of the New Year having really begun is that concerts are quickly shaking off their seasonal cheer, and nothing less than serious programming occupied the minds of the Elias String Quartet as they returned to the Wigmore Hall. In a cleverly focused concert, Beethoven was flanked by two great 20th-century Russian composers, Stravinsky and Shostakovich, with creative tension arising from their respective anti- and pro-Beethoven positions.

The programme’s centrepiece was Beethoven’s Quartet No 10 in E flat, nicknamed the Harp on account of the pizzicato (plucked) effects that permeate the first movement. Both its E flat tonality and compositional year of 1809 connect it to Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, though it doesn’t have the same thrust as that celebrated work and instead shows Beethoven even in his middle period anticipating the musical barriers he would soon break.

Successful performances of this work depend on the interpretative cohesion of its players and here the Elias set up a sense of hushed expectancy in the stillness of the first movement’s opening before supplying surging warmth. The hymn-like slow movement was an intense, sustained outpouring, balanced out by the energy released in the scherzo and an almost playful finale.

Often overlooked on account of their brevity, the tiny masterpieces comprising Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet made a welcome opening to the evening. Again, the context of these 1914 miniatures, coming after Stravinsky’s three most celebrated ballets (The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring), explains the folk influences of the the first movement’s drones and some hard modernist edges, but they show new directions too. The Elias produced magnificently concentrated sound in the sombre murmurings – like  Russian Orthodox chant – of the final piece.

The Elias were joined after interval by the outstanding pianist Steven Osborne for Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G minor. Context tells us less about this 1940 score: despite the war, it sounds like abstract music – though you can never be quite sure with Shostakovich – and is full of Beethovenian striving. The piano anchors this work, literally so at the start where it sets everything in motion, and Osborne was central to this imposing performance.

That said, some of the most interesting textures involve the strings alone, especially in the disembodied fugue of the second movement and the stark, searing dialogues – first between violin and cello, then violin and viola – of the fourth movement. But piano and strings combined in the galloping scherzo and finale to brilliantly brittle effect. JA

Further details of season:

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