Friday, 14 December 2007

A Straussian golden age


For those of us who never cared much for Schwarzkopf, and even dared to find flaws in Lisa Della Casa, the times have never been better for the enjoyment of that singular phenomenon, the Strauss soprano. There's no one way of going about it, and in recent years I have enjoyed in equal measure the liquid tones of Karita Mattila and Soile Isokoski as well as the fuller, more enveloping sound of Christine Brewer and now the young Anja Harteros, whose Four Last Songs with Fabio Luisi and the Dresden Staatskapelle on Sony is a wonder of communicative strength (even if she sings a little sharp at times in her excitement).

It took me longer to understand the special qualities of Anne Schwanewilms (pictured above by Johanna Peine). Some still find her subtlety a little perplexing: her Ariadne at Covent Garden did not, apparently, come across as vividly to those sitting way back in the amphitheatre as it did to those of us lucky enough to be in the stalls. But her Strauss songs for Hyperion's ambitious series, pioneered by that most sensitive and supportive of pianists Roger Vignoles, proved beyond measure that her uncanny ability to change colour, to float a high line and to choose the unexpected make her second to none in this repertoire.

At the Wigmore Hall with Vignoles last week, she was more unconventional than ever, plunging straight into hushed rapture with 'Traum durch die Dammerung', and ending with the desolation of Mahler's early 'Nicht wiedersehen!' (though of course there were consoling encores in more Strauss - 'Das Rosenband', the long line on 'Elysium' always unforgettable with this singer, and 'Wiegenlied'). The recital had an unsettling core of sadness and madness, and the audience was clearly drawn into the inner world that Schwanewilms so uniquely creates.

I was keenly anticipating her first Berlioz Nuits d'ete with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican this Wednesday. It was obvious from the first verse of 'Villanelle', however, that there were problems with the French, and a worrying lack of consonants. One of my usually more astute colleagues, Ed Seckerson, said it was one of the most boring performances he'd ever heard. I strongly disagree - again, Schwanewilms draws you into her interior world, which this of all 'cycles' demands (and got, especially with such a small and responsive LSO ensemble). Held rapt by 'Le spectre de la rose', I wept intemperately from the middle of 'Sur les lagunes' onwards. Of course, 'Absence' is one of the two most beautiful songs ever composed (the other has to be Mahler's 'Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen', doesn't it?). But again the special tone colour she brought to each refrain created even more magic than usual.

Even so, the rapture had to be modified - which it certainly wasn't when viola-player Tabea Zimmermann took wing with Sir Colin and an LSO on top form for Harold in Italy. Here the vivacious lady is, portrayed by Suschech Bayat:


She has to be among today's most dramatic and involving performers, moving with the music and playing with the entry of the protagonist's liveliest tune in the first movement in a way that made me want to laugh out loud for joy. The quiet refrain in the shepherd's piping sequence, too, was mesmerising. And what a great work it is, so full of melody as well as the familiar unconventional instrumentation. To think that at the same time a friend was enjoying what she said was an extraordinary Mahler 3 conducted by Rozhdestvensky over at the Festival Hall. London's musical scene has never been livelier: I keep saying I don't want to overdo it by cramming in too much, but there are too many irresistible and unusual programmes for the taking, and so many great artists to see.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Prokofiev ballets old and new




While the Royal Ballet has refurbished and refreshed the classic Kenneth MacMillan Romeo and Juliet, English National Ballet continues to grab headlines with its newish production of The Snow Queen, purportedly to Prokofiev's last and least well-known ballet score, The Stone Flower. Choreographer Michael Corder had long wanted to try his hand at this full-length baggy monster, but was apparently told that no-one knew the story (a tale from the Urals about a perfectionist artisan who seeks the stone flower that will create a malachite vase of matchless beauty, only to sell his soul temporarily to the Mistress of the Copper Mountain until rescued by his true love). Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen provides a more familiar correspondence, as I pointed out in my notes for the Chandos recording of The Stone Flower back in 2003.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a three-act ballet on the subject would have to be as conventional as the original Bolshoi and Kirov productions of The Stone Flower. As you see from the second picture, courtesy of Patrick Baldwin, the Snow Queen (Darya Klimentova) sits on a superkitsch throne flanked by furry dancers who look like refugees from the cast of Cats (in fact they're supposed to be wolves and foxes). She does look splendid, of course, in her 'half kilometre of Swarovski edging...as well as several thousand crystal motives and thousands of individual stones'. Otherwise, the sets and costumes would not be out of place in a Soviet show of the 1970s.

Nicholas Georgiadis's 1960s sets for Romeo and Juliet over at Covent Garden, on the other hand, have been restored to their original glory, and so long as you like plenty of Sienese reds and browns, still look handsome. Within that framework I adored the small but perfectly formed and hyperpoetic lovers of Ivan Putrov and Roberta Marquez (pictured above by Rob Moore in rehearsal). The balcony scene brought tears to the eyes, as it so often does, and if something of the chamber-musical intimacy of the later scenes gets lost on the Covent Garden stage, the denouement was harrowing as ever. Everything about this revival breathed a confidence lacking the last time around, and Boris Gruzin's fluid pacing of the score made it sound better than I've ever heard it at the Garden. What an irresistible introduction to the ballet this still is, and how moving to recall that incredible television documentary in which inner-city kids worked on it for 18 months with the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

The Snow Queen presses all the right classic buttons, but rarely blazes with life, except in the vigorous gypsy divertissement of Act Three. To my untutored eyes, much of the choreography seemed stereotyped: surely an opportunity was missed to make the icy palace people more other-worldly and peculiar? Their dances were very ordinary. As for the score, amazingly well played under Martin West - what a deal of conducting talent is immersed in the regional ballet companies - it can hardly be said to have been 'arranged' by Julian Philips, unless you take 'arrangement' to mean 'positioning'. Wisely, perhaps, since The Stone Flower rarely rises to Prokofiev's greatest lyric heights, he has taken the romantic highspots from War and Peace - in the suite put together by the late Christopher Palmer, who is the only true, uncredited arranger of the evening - and the Summer Night suite drawn from Betrothal in a Monastery.

Elsewhere, the plums - and some of the duffer numbers - of The Stone Flower have been cut and pasted; if there are any new transitions, I didn't notice them. The biggest mistake, I think, is the start. Prokofiev's icily brilliant introduction is the perfect representation both of the Mistress of the Copper Mountain and her Andersen counterpart. We didn't get it: instead, the curtain immediately rose on the Snow Queen and her court, prancing to the polonaise from War and Peace. Thus what Verdi would have called the 'tinta' of the piece was never properly established. Best, perhaps, was the end of the First Act, Kay's absorption into the ice maiden's kingdom played out at length to the scherzo from the Fifth Symphony (originally an idea for Romeo and Juliet). Yosvani Ramos's Kay and Fernanda Oliveira's Gerda charmed; Klimentova had poise, and glittered in her Swarovski diamonds, but didn't seem to me sufficiently supernatural. Ah, the ballet world - how mired in the old-fashioned it is. And even when it tries to be modern, as we saw from Michael Clark's half-cock Stravinsky, it often falls flat.

Still, to see aristocratic dancing at its best is quite something: after listening to my fourteen complete Nutcrackers for Radio 3's Building a Library, on Saturday evening I watched the Royal Ballet show with incredibly slow but powerful conducting from the late, great Svetlanov and marvelled at how they could furnish not two but four wonderful principals. That's the sort of thing that Matthew Bourne's New Adventures (as Adventures in Motion Pictures is now called) can't do, but they know their strengths and their Nutcracker! is as fresh as when it first hit the stage in a double bill (as Tchaikovsky originally devised it) with the opera Yolanta. I'm taking one of my goddaughters to see it on Saturday. As for my library choice, you'll have to wait until 22 December to find out. Don't hold your breath. All I should add is that I love this masterpiece even more than when I started. It's a difficult thing to keep up the inspiration across the span of a two- or three-act ballet. Prokofiev managed it once, in Romeo and Juliet. The Stone Flower, like Britten's Prince of the Pagodas, starts well but then falls back on mere professionalism. Only Tchaikovsky pulled off the trick three times.

Can I just finish on a self-indulgent paean to what makes London on a crisp, clear winter's day so marvellous? After I'd had a fun time recording the Nutcracker script with the excellent Kevin Bee and his team in Broadcasting House, I allowed myself an afternoon off following two weeks of solid work. I had a slow-to-be-served but sociable lunch at the ICA with Jeremy and our Alexander teacher friend Tom Pope, looked round the exhibition of Peter Hujar's often outlandish photographs, cycled off to pick up scores from Westminster Library and then whiled away the hours before The Snow Queen up in Marylebone. I wanted to see the drawings from the Rothschild Collection at the Wallace Collection, which didn't take long - apart from the vivid Bakst Scheherazade design and some Lancrets, it didn't interest me - but I ended up more absorbed by the sword hilts in the oriental armoury, which I had entirely to myself. Then I wandered up and down Marylebone High Street, bought some records in the enormous Oxfam Shop, pottered in Daunt Books and had an omelette in Paul, where I bumped into Peter Maniura, his wife Robin and their daughter. Peter wanted to know if he should televise The Snow Queen, so I'll point him to this report. No doubt the Swarovski costumes will look good in close-up; but I don't anticipate it rivalling the telly hit of the Bourne Nutcracker!, for which Peter was also responsible.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Pretty Peri



After the flatulence of Foulds's World Requiem and Korngold's Heliane, what a joy to go back to an intimate oratorio, touched throughout by gentle genius. Such is Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri, launched shortly after his Wunderjahr of 1840 at a white heat which surprised even Clara. Based on Tom Moore's oriental fantasy Lallah Rookh - a far cry from his Irish 'melodies', which Jeremy performed a couple of weeks ago - this lovely concoction of Schumann's most emotional Lieder style with choruses of surprising delicacy and some very unpious ensembles has clearly won the heart of Sir Simon Rattle, who gave the most polished and flowing performance imaginable of it with the marvellous Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Royal Festival Hall last night.

He must have been delighted by his glorious line-up of soloists. I've misjudged Sally Matthews, probably because she was never cut out to be Figaro's Susanna; but here she soared and melted, capping the Peri's jolly and very unoratoriesque acceptance into heaven with a splendid top C. We had two of Britain's best tenors - Mark Padmore, committed as ever but straining a bit for the Langridge effect and lacking the bottom notes of this often low-lying narration, and Timothy Robinson, fresh from spooking us as Quint - as well as Kate Royal as the second soprano and the nurturing Bernarda Fink. I'm delighted Sir Simon sticks by David Wilson-Johnson: he made an amazingly good showing among glitzier company on the recent Mahler 8, and delivered his long solo in Schumann's third part with great dignity.

If there's a weakness in the work, it's that the composer doesn't do the macho battle stuff terribly convincingly; but the eternal feminine is clearly his element. Impossible not to come out with spirits discreetly soaring. On a personal note, too, I found it established the perfect emotional equilibrium between two extreme events I've attended recently - the 'naming' (ie non-Christian christening) of characterful one-year old Garance, at which I was delighted to be the 'celebrant', and the funeral of our friend Jill's mother Mary, to whom we were also close.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

The Sacrifice: An epilogue

In the wake of my euphoria over The Sacrifice (see below), I felt I had to e-mail James MacMillan, whom I’ve interviewed once and collaborated with on the Chandos liner notes for A Scotch Bestiary. He had come under fire from certain quarters, so I thought some lines of warm praise might not go amiss (this is part of a general resolve, which I thrashed out with Lynne Walker, to make sure to tell people in our sphere when we’ve been moved or impressed by something; it doesn’t happen often enough in our mealy-mouthed world).

He replied – and told me he was happy for me to reproduce the reply, citing names and all (though I hang fire there, as it might seem like sour grapes from me): ‘Your messages are intriguing and have provoked some thought! Someone said to Michael Symmons Roberts ((poet and librettist of The Sacrifice)) and I on Monday that the new music police "smell their deadliest enemies" in people like us. We have sometimes toyed with the idea of writing about this, but have so far decided against it, as it might look like whingeing. Nevertheless there is a story to be told about the narrow thinking of the contemporary music ghetto mentality and their unfriendliness towards those who depart from the party line. The situation is not helped by ((certain)) people....who continue to be the abrasively aggressive cheerleaders for "the cause", seeing people like myself as some kind of dangerous opposition.

'They haven't managed to land any meaningful blows on me, but I do worry about the impact they might have on the musical culture generally, and how they might depress younger figures coming through who are bullied into paths they might not want to take.’

We are trying out various sounding-boards, following James’s cue to ‘park our tanks’ on the mafia’s lawn, and hope Stephen Johnson might join us. I, too, fervently believe that direct communication in new music still tends to be frowned upon, and that the press wing of the contemporary music mafia continues to peddle the view that new works in performance are setting the world alight when the audience responds tepidly: a new piece a couple of years ago by Richard Barrett was a classic case in point.

Ultimately, no-one should come out of a concert-hall scratching the head and saying, ‘Not sure what I thought about that – what did you think?’ One’s either struck by something – even if one doesn’t understand it all on a first hearing – or not.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Two cheers for British opera




That's to say, not as in Forster's 'two cheers for democracy', but one resounding cheer at the beginning of the week for James MacMillan's The Sacrifice, hitting London for the first time, and another, more predictable one for Britten's The Turn of the Screw at English National Opera on Friday. The production pictures show Leigh Melrose as Evan and Lisa Milne as sacrificial offering number one Sian in Katie Mitchell's Welsh National Opera production of The Sacrifice (copyright Catherine Ashmore); and George Longworth as the dead Miles mourned over by Rebecca Evans's Governess in the ENO Turn of the Screw (copyright Neil Libbert).

For me, the MacMillan was the more shattering event of the two - perhaps because it was so fresh, so punch-packing and also because I'd completely forgotten what I'd read of the plot's most shocking twist and found myself unable to move from my seat at the end of Act 2. MacMillan and his librettist, poet Michael Symmons Roberts, have adapted a powerful tale from the Mabinogion to the present (or an imagined future), distilling the age-old situation of love thwarted by tribal hates and an implacable cycle of revenge. Isn't it odd that Adrian Mourby, in the Screw programme, writes how the 20th century had 'had its fill of star-crossed lovers caught between emerging nation states'; and yet here in the 21st is a myth which speaks as powerfully to us as Romeo and Juliet, with a further savagery all too familiar from world events today.

MacMillan serves Symmons Roberts's spare, eloquent and often piercing lines with all the devices opera has always used to move and terrorise its audience: memorable lyric phrases prevented from becoming cliched by their unusual shape and the often acid harmonies supporting them, violent dance music punctuated by crackling choruses - surely the most vigorous in British opera since Peter Grimes and Billy Budd - and, in the third act, ritualistic scenes of mourning and, finally, a tentatively hopeful pezzo concertato of which, as one reviewer justly wrote, Verdi might have been proud.

The contemporary music mafia sees it as a sell-out: good heavens, direct communication, tunes, duets, ensembles! But it rarely seems contrived - I even 'bought' the love-scene at the heart of the opera, after resisting its obvious setting-up for a minute or two. And the vocal writing, though clearly strenuous, especially for the men, is surely the most speech-melodic since Britten and Janacek: although Adams made a good shot of it in Nixon in China, this is where Ades (unintentionally, I think) and Birtwistle (with a quite deliberate angularity and instrumental leaping-about) part company with the truly great opera composers. As for the archetypal action, Katie Mitchell's fluid production and the lacerating commitment of some of our finest singing-actors stopped it sliding into black and white. Lisa Milne's Sian, the girl who makes a marriage of convenience in an attempt to bring two warring factions together, was moving to tears in her Act 3 lament, and always truthful in her simple dignity; Christopher Purves as her father, the General, brought all the intensity and focus which stunned us in his Wozzeck, also for Welsh National Opera. In the pit, the sounds conjured by JMacM ranged from the bewitching spider-web of soft sound in the Prelude to the razor-sharp Celtic snaps of the dangerous celebrations.

There could be no doubt that all the operatic mechanisms were working at full pelt in one of the 20th century's most rigorous masterpieces: The Turn of the Screw stands alongside Wozzeck in its phenomenal musical organisation made manifest in every stage of the drama. Throughout the four weeks I've spent on the opera in my City Lit classes, we've been terrified by Katie Mitchell's atmospheric film - also starring Lisa Milne, a rather radical departure from the 'mostly in the mind of the Governess' theory which James surely intended but convincing on its own terms - and Luc Bondy's visceral Aix production. David McVicar at ENO never put a foot wrong in terms of a sensitive, ambiguous presentation: the children never see the ghosts except in the dream sequences, but are clearly haunted by their awful recent history, while the Governess is an easily flustered, hot-headed young woman who's read too many romantic novels rather than an up-tight neurotic. But there was a problem in the hugeness of the ENO stage and the sets, not always ideally lit though very haunting when darkness triumphed.

My biggest disappointment came in the climactic interlude where the celesta makes the ghost of Quint manifest and the horn plays the 12-note 'Screw theme' for the first time in its entirety since the introduction. It was almost obliterated by the servants sliding on the creaking screens and shunting the scenery about, which took me back to my days as a Hesse student at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1983. I was privileged then to assist the adorable, stalwart Aldeburgh caretaker and stage manager Bob Ling with the scene-shifting for the Britten-Pears School's production (Lynne Dawson was the first of the two Governesses, fresh from music college; Helen Charnock led the second cast). Helping out Basil Coleman's revival-on-a-shoestring, we had to push around the noisy leftovers from the previous year's Eugene Onegin, and they made a heck of a noise during the interlude-variations. Myfanwy Piper, a rather intimidating lady, and Sir Peter Pears were much displeased, but there was nothing we could do (and it didn't prevent them singing 'Happy Birthday' to me on my 21st, even though they had no idea who I was). ENO's effort wasn't quite as bad, but given the bigger budget and the greater sophistication of stage machinery, it should have been silent.

Having all those servants, who are definitely there in the James novella but who benefit the opera by being absent and leaving the claustrophobic action to the six protagonists, diffused something of the horror; and of course, it would have chilled us more to the bone in a smaller theatre. That said, the projection and nuancing both of the soloists and the orchestral players under Garry Walker was at a higher level than in any other performance I've heard.

Rebecca Evans, without the edginess of the original Governess Jennifer Vyvyan, conveyed all the protagonist's impulsiveness and neediness through inflection of the text. Her most melting moments, such as the letter-writing in Act 2 and her desolation at the end, were heart-breaking. Nazan Fikret's Flora, as always much older than James's creation, came across as a big girl on the brink of womanhood, clearly already disturbed and marginalised by the Governess's fixation on sweet little Miles - also a performance of startling maturity from the second of the two boys in the cast, Jacob Moriarty. The ghosts didn't quite have the physical presence of Bondy's pair, but maybe that was part of the point; and Timothy Robinson was emblematic of the production's hard work on detail in the profound plumbing of every word as Britten so magnificently set it. I'd love to see McVicar's vision on film: that could solve the scene-shifting problems in the all-important interludes and allow us the close-ups I didn't get from my seat at the back of the stalls.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Elgar at Morley College


'Inside the BBC Symphony Orchestra', the somewhat anatomically titled (not by me) course I run at Morley College, has its more glamorous side in the shape of our friendly co-operation with players from the orchestra (usually two visits per term). Over the past three years we have built up an especially warm relationship with four 'strings' - violinists Patrick Wastnage and Rachel Samuel, viola-player Nikos Zarb and co-principal cellist Graham Bradshaw - who give concerts as the Helikon Quartet (inspired, I always assumed, by Nikos's Greek roots - his father is an accomplished guitarist, who once came too to play in one of the Boccherini Quintets. Now Rachel tells me she is also of the Hellenic strain - could I have guessed from her name?).

Having failed, owing to labyrinthine orchestral rehearsal procedures, to extract the Helikons to play in one of the pods of the London Eye earlier this year, I was delighted to be able to offer them a concert at the Garrick Club: an illustrated lecture next February in which I shall waffle on about Elgar's Indian summers in Brinkwells, Sussex and they will then play the glorious and complex Quartet. They were pleased to have the opportunity to get the work at least a little into their systems by trying it out at Morley on Thursday evening. So Elgar, the greatest, came to pay his respects to former Morley luminaries Tippett and Holst, whose signatures I have discovered in several scores in the college library, now safely lodged in the special collection.

It was a very happy, relaxed occasion. Both the students and I brought along a few guests, and around the performance there were lively demonstrations of romantic slides and portamenti, the particular uses of vibrato and the different string sounds required by visiting conductors to the BBCSO. The performance was, I think, their finest yet, in that Patrick especially had to soar, and did, in the difficult first violin part, and the passion of the outer movements was extraordinary at such close quarters (though I should add that I shan't forget their earlier Morley performances of the Ravel, Verdi and Shostakovich (First) quartets). We constantly pinch ourselves to realise that we are hearing first-rate music making in the slightly grubby, strip-lit classroom at Morley, surrounded by valiant practice noises (last year, in Room B15, it was trumpeters struggling to intone single notes; now we often get singers working at a level which might make even Florence Foster Jenkins blush).

Afterwards, as the players went off in search of a pint, I and my friends Simon and Patricia dived into the nearest Italian restaurant, the Cotto opposite Lambeth North tube, and found to our surprise that the pasta was fresh, fatta in casa, and the whole ambience very friendly, a l'italiana: an extra pleasure to rival Bos Cirrik after the performance of the play Jenufa the previous week.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

No wonder


We are fast approaching the 50th anniversary of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's death on 29 November 1957. I came across this plaque marking his birthplace in Brno quite by chance while on the Janacek trail back in May. I must admit, though, that the current Korngoldolatry rather baffles me. He was a prodigy, no doubt, a slick and easy orchestrator and a master of pace, but what did he actually have to say? Zemlinsky, Busoni and Hindemith, to name but three, all have far more individual voices. Was film music, with its quick evocation of atmosphere and its use of musical material that shouldn't impinge too much upon the senses, Korngold's natural destination?

It rather seems so from the performance of his 1927 monster opera Das Wunder der Heliane, given its UK premiere last night in London's Royal Festival Hall by the inspirational Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I'd been unimpressed by the Decca recording - it struck me then as a pale shadow, so to speak, of Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten. Yet Jurowski clearly believed in it, so it seemed worth while to give it another try.

The better the performance, and the more lustrous the application of Korngold's late romantic orchestral palette, the more yawning the gulf between form and content. Quite apart from the fact that the libretto has to be one of the worst in operatic history, with gems like 'Am I filth, spewed out from sundered hell?' and much along the lines of 'who gives himself, has conquered himself', Korngold falls very short of the possible transcendence that music alone can provide in such circumstances. The soprano and tenor roles are insanely taxing; Patricia Racette almost made us believe in the moment when Heliane offers to undergo a trial before God to bring her beloved, self-slaughtered Stranger back to life. Almost; but for me there wasn't a moment of musical or dramatic truth in the entire work. We have a useful lyric-verging-on-helden tenor, too, in Michael Hendrick; but the Festival Hall audience also witnessed, open-mouthed, possibly the worst baritone singing on a professional platform ever from the once-excellent Andreas Schmidt, the voice now shot to ribbons. He should have cancelled his contract, or maybe never have been put in this position. Anyway, he will ruin the LPO's recording - I assume they're making one from the presence of the microphones - as surely as Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet will 'do' for the Chandos recording of Foulds's A World Requiem (than which Korngold's opera is at least, it has to be said, a great deal more substantial).

Half the audience gaped in reverence at the wonder of it all; the other half wanted to laugh. What is it about such second-rate works which attracts the anoraks? Thomas Mann once wrote that Wagner's Tristan is for young people who don't know what to do with their sexuality; in which case I pose the heretical thought that Korngold's Heliane is for older men who've never known what to do with it.

Finally, then, the same question arises as with the Foulds: would we rather hear such a work done once in concert rather than not at all? In this case, given Jurowski's conviction, maybe; but there are too many much better Austro-German operas lying mouldering. After all, it's over half a century since London heard Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae, a more masterly and inspired work in every way. Hurrumph.
'

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Jenufa - the play



Simon Annand took this production photograph of the great Paola Dionisotti as the Kostelnicka and outstanding newcomer Jodie McNee as her stepdaughter Jenufa in Irina Brown's UK premiere of Gabriela Preissova's 1890 play. Timberlake Wertenbaker adapted it for the Natural Perspective theatre company's first show at the Arcola Theatre.

It was a revelation. I had come to admire Preissova's achievement when I was preparing classes on Janacek's searing opera at the City Lit; but I had no idea quite how much emotional power Janacek owed to the original play (in Moravian dialect) until I had the chance to see it come across with full force in this dedicated production. The tale, based on a true story of a girl whose stepmother drowned her illegitimate child in an attempt to save her reputation, is universal (even if that sort of thing doesn't happen in our culture, there are plenty of cases even in this country where it still applies). Brown gave it a timelessness by the use of music from eastern Europe and elsewhere - plausible recreations of Bulgarian throat-singing, for instance - to punctuate the scenes of village life.

I couldn't help hearing some of Janacek's unforgettable ideas at times, as in the very moving dialogue in which the Kostelnicka pleads with handsome, feckless Steva to acknowledge his child and, of course, the final scene where, her disowned stepmother having gone off to be sentenced, Jenufa faces the future together with the man who once slashed her face with a knife. Janacek's music surges in irresistible late romantic radiance; but the play is more ambiguous. 'I will be your wife', says Jenufa. 'After all, it's what she wanted. It's what Mama wanted'. Is this a sign of forgiveness for the woman she has just refused to call mother, or a bitter acknowledgment of the Kostelnicka's dominating forcefulness? In a discussion afterwards, Irina Brown told us how she'd come back to see the actors work out this scene three weeks into the run, and couldn't speak afterwards for the emotions it wrought in her. They had, she said, 'gone their own way'. And what a magnificent ensemble, almost as good as the Cloud Nine team (see below). Jodie McNee turns hauntingly from a serious but impulsive girl to a suffering young woman and on to a reflection of her stepmother; the two young men - Oscar Pearce as Laca and Ben Mansfield as Steva - both win our sympathy against the odds. Dionisotti is anything but histrionic, a charge levelled in one clearly misguided review: quiet, dignified, but with terrifying banked fires that erupt from time to time.

I only hope this thoughtful production of a masterly play has a chance to transfer. Even if it doesn't, I'm delighted to have caught it at the wonderful, friendly Arcola in Stoke Newington, just around the corner from what has to be one of the best Turkish restaurants in London, 19 Numara Bos Cirrik, with its delicious lahmacun and special onions soaked in turnip and pomegranate juice. We just had time to snatch a meal there before the show, and the waitress had been told by so many customers how she had to go and see the play. I hope she does. Sadly, it finishes on Saturday.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

'Clairaudiently' my foot


Let's deal first with the last, potentially most interesting but infinitely the worst of the six concerts I heard in an overloaded week. To mark Remembrance Sunday - to which I can only come close to paying homage with the above moody image of a medieval knight in Layer Marney Church, snapped several weeks back - the Beeb decided to mount a spectacular in the shape of John Foulds's A World Requiem, last heard at the Albert Hall in 1926.

And with good reason (for the gap, that is). One so much wanted to like Foulds, with his pacifist intentions, his vast commemoration so close to the horrors of the First World War and the manoeuverings of some 1250 performers (including brass bands at the four compass-points of the Albert Hall, like Berlioz's Requiem - as if this could come anywhere close - and four sizeable choirs). But in my attempt to find out what it might be like, not wanting to endure anything along the lines of the tedium induced by Bantock's non-starter Omar Khayyam, there were warning signs. Some of the initial crits in the 1920s were damning, even though the public seems to have loved it, and the estimable Sakari Oramo, who's championed Foulds's more curious later pieces, turned down the rebirthing on the grounds that he found the World Requiem 'difficult to adapt to the modern day' and 'very sentimental'.

Not only that, but in view of Foulds's theosophical claim to receive music from the spheres 'clairaudiently', God clearly forgot to give him any memorable inspirations. The opening 'Requiem aeternam', with its shifting chords, promises well, but then the poor old baritone (the game but sorely taxed Gerald Finley) has to struggle with reams of one-note declamation. There's a ghastly, sickly 'Peace' movement for distant boys' chorus and soprano (the squally Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet), at which point my companion 'got the giggles' and shuffled out embarrassed during the pause between the two parts. And it worsened in Part Two, after a promising opening blaze and a briefly weird 'Elysium' movement to a text by the Hindu poet Kabir; the celestial twitterings have been compared to Messiaen and minimalism, but they wear very quickly. As for the message, it's all about consolation in the hereafter for the fallen, and hardly deals at all with the suffering or the pity of war. Let anyone compare it at their peril with Britten's War Requiem, or even Elgar's deeply moving 'For the Fallen' from The Spirit of England . Was I glad we at least had a chance to make up our own minds? Given the waste of those large (and generally splendid) forces, not at all.

The BBCSO had already given a rather more incandescent performance, again to a two-thirds empty but very enthusiastic Barbican Hall audience, on Wednesday. I think it's the first time I've seen the wild, impassioned Yan Pascal Tortelier in action. The way he threw himself, scoreless, into Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra struck an acquaintance who collared me afterwards as a bit like 'masturbating in public'. To which I replied that this was clearly not self-love, but love for the piece in question. With its mighty Passacaglia and its weird disjunction between nursery-songlike folk tunes and more complex backdrops, the Lutoslawski fitted in well with the vast, fresh canvas of Britten's Violin Concerto, played with huge spirit if not quite all the notes by Daniel Hope. And the Britten related well, of course, to his master Frank Bridge's most familiar voice in The Sea. There was a lively crowd for the pre-performance talk, with good observations from the punters. One girl was especially fascinated by John Adams's interest in Britten, re his performance of the Cello Symphony a couple of weeks ago, and wondered what he'd taken for Nixon in China- which led to a brief but healthy debate about word-setting and speech-melody in contemporary opera (very rare to find it done well).

I was also reconciled to the larger, more fashion-conscious crowds who, in contrast, filled the hall for the rest of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Sibelius cycle as the interpretations waxed in conviction. His taut precision worked wonders on the First Symphony, and he really grasped the revised Fifth's mighty two-in-one first movement, only nearly to spoil it all by a much slower tempo for the great swinging motif in the finale: surely the point is that it unfolds at the same speed as what's gone before, to show what lies beneath? No matter: the end was predictably thrilling and for once there was sensitivity in the encore, 'The Death of Melisande'. It turned me back to listening to all sorts of Sibelius on Sunday morning: isn't he of the essence, and how well he succeeds in so many spheres, especially light, tuneful incidental music.

Two less glitzy but nevertheless pleasant events rounded out the six-day picture: a concert for Flanders in the glorious surroundings of the Chelsea Royal Hospital Chapel, shared between an early-music quartet and a teenage pianist (daughter of the consort's theorbist) who showed poetry in a Rachmaninov Etude-Tableau but took on too much heavy stuff. The real pleasure of this event was to press the flesh of Baroness Shirley Williams, a delightful and friendly conversationalist. And the lavish reception, laid on by a shipped-in Belgian catering corps, was certainly unexpected. On Thursday, four viola-players from the BBCSO - Kate Read, Carol Ella, Audrey Henning and Natalie Taylor - came to the Morley class. They surprised me by proving that there is original material for the ensemble, not least an astonishingly modern-sounding quartet by Telemann and a piece by York Bowen with a fine, atmospheric introduction. Then there were arrangements by two of the orchestra's trombonists, who curiously have both taken up the viola: the variations on 'Lillibulero' were witty and clever, along the lines of Glinka's Kamarinskaya. Curiously, the ladies didn't mind the small audience and want to come again, adding two more players to make a sextet.

Finally - what a week - I spent five hours closeted with a small group of fellow-critics at BBC Woodlands to decide the shortlist for the BBC Music Magazine awards. My lips are sealed on our choices until they appear in print, but I can say that the time flew by in such excellent company. I'd expected lots of generalisations - 'this is good', 'that one's out' - but someone had something interesting to say on just about every release. And it was a joy to find the two Early Music specialists, Berta Joncus and George Pratt, so open-minded right across the board (Berta's expertise on voices turns out to stem from her own first career as a singer). Curiously, too, we tended to be in agreement about what we hated and what we really loved - though there were hard-fought battles in the Instrumental and Chamber categories, both overloaded with outstanding releases. Lest that makes it all seem like pure fun, I've been asked to add a line to point out how much 'blood, tears and sweat' were spent in the process - and that's especially true for our dynamic hostess, the tireless Helen Wallace, in ordering up and co-ordinating all those discs. Of course, we listened many more hours than we were paid for, but it was such a learning process. For the candidates, due to be listed in the January issue, watch this space.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Sibelius and Stravinsky bound

'Sibelius unbound' is in fact the title of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Sibelius symphonies cycle with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Barbican. Yet it's hardly liberating: masterful at best, Salonen is curiously un-Finnish in labouring to make a point where compatriots like Berglund and Jukka-Pekka Saraste achieve a more natural flow and cut off abruptly when the music has said what it has to say. Has EPS been too long in LA, where the orchestra has a surface glamour, and very imposing lower strings for the start of the Fourth Symphony, but hard, unyielding violins, rampant brass and a woodwind section that's no match for any of the London departments in terms of sophistication?

There was at least a steely concentration and the right kind of undertow in the Fourth, launching Friday evening's concert (second in the series). Its tension was undercut for me by the arrival, in the seat next to me, of a leggy, mouthy Irish blonde who seemed so excited by the prospect of hearing a full symphony orchestra in the concert hall for the first time that I hesitated to tell her to shut up as she whispered sibilantly to her boyfriend throughout this toughest of symphonies. I thought if I did, I might put her off concerts for life. My patience paid off - once I'd given her one of our (free) programmes, which engrossed her, she sat rapt through the Seventh and said she'd certainly come again. But it was a restless audience. Latecomers having been admitted halfway through the Fourth, Salonen waited an age for them to seat themselves before launching that most daunting of Adagios. Finlandia was the encore - after the Seventh, for goodness' sake - and you could tell this is a band which plays lots of film scores: good, vulgar fun.

Wish I could have said the same for the Michael Clark Company's Stravinsky trilogy the following evening. I suppose we were expecting something cutting-edge, but it was all tired and lacking in real energy. You might think it difficult to make The Rite of Spring, albeit played (very well) on two pianos, boring - but these lackadaisical, eviscerated dancers did just that. The Leigh Bowery costumes look horribly dated (and why the toilet lids sported by two of the dancers?); there's quite a good number danced by a self-pleasuring lady in purple to the 'Spring Rounds', but the 'Danse Sacrale' - a very unclimactic solo for a bare-breasted prima ballerina alone on the stage - was anything but primal. Apollo lacked poetry - the male dancers are rather thick set and not very sexy - while Les noces saw the dancers jiggling about a bit in the midst of a mimsy chorus (the supposedly professional New London Chamber Choir), four second-rate soloists and an OK yet hardly bracing piano and percussion ensemble. At no point did Clark do anything new to make one forget the extraordinary achievements of Balanchine and Nijinska, still fresh as paint in these works. And there was more life in the flickers of emotion passing across the face of the octogenarian composer, seen conducting the Firebird finale in a 1965 film before Les noces, than in the rest of this oddly enervating evening.

Best of the weekend was a screening of four documentaries in the Brixton Ritzy's mini-Roma festival - or rather the first two, one about Roma children in a Serbian village picking up the brass band tradition, the other about grubby but idealistic kids in an encampment on the outskirts of Belgrade. The film about Guca, the incredible meeting of Roma brass groups and folk ensembles with Serbian nationalism, went on a bit - as, evidently, would the festival, which we once thought of visiting - and then there was a badly put-together documentary about Macedonian Esma, 'Queen of the Gypsies', an interesting character with her 47 adopted sons and her pleas for internationalism, but one wanted to hear and see far more of her in her younger days.

Have started Turn of the Screw with the City Lit students, already feeling a bit queasy about the subject-matter and living with it for the next four weeks, but it's a masterpiece, no doubt, and it's good to get back to Henry James. The claims Britten is supposed to have made to Eric Crozier and Myfanwy Piper about his schooltime rape and his father sending him out to procure boys do seem extraordinary, but help to account for the horrifying murk of the piece. Will have to offset it with morning doses of the many Bach cantatas up for the BBC Music Magazine awards this year.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Autumn interlude - II



Essex can be gorgeous: did you know this? Apart from an earlier excursion to Constable Country, where we found 'I hate boring Dedum' (sic) painted on a stile, I had no idea. A weekend with the Le Franc family, however, in their rented cottage on the Layer Marney Estate, changed all that. It may not be as dramatic as Offa's Dyke country, but how's this for handsome samphire-covered marshland and an early Renaissance extravaganza of a gateway (a few hundred yards from the cottage).

Of course the landscape can be very bleak on a wet Sunday (taken on the isle of Mersea after one of the best seafood lunches ever):


But there are always gems like this to explore - Copford Church with its 12th century wall-paintings (slightly overdone in the Victorian restoration, but essentially authentic). I took this photo because the postcard didn't squeeze in the extraordinary zodiac signs on the arch as well as the splendid roundel of Christ enthroned in the dome of the apse:


Back in London, I loved the profanity of Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine at the Almeida. It turns gender and race topsy-turvy but manages to be entertaining at the same time and gives the actors a real showcase for their craft. A man plays a repressed Victorian lady in the colonial first half, her son in the second (set in 1979, the year the play was written, but the three characters who return have only aged 25 years); the Victorian paterfamilias becomes a likeable lesbian's four-year old daughter; a stunning young actress (Nicola Walker) plays the girly son in part one and takes over the now discreetly liberated mother in part two. And so on. It hasn't dated and the sexual politics are still suitably confusing. The superb ensemble included two names I recognised from the original cast of Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing, still one of the best ever evenings I've spent in the theatre, which I was reminded must have been nearly a decade ago.

The other great pleasure of the week has been to go through John Lanchbery's effervescent ballet score for the Ashton ballet (first a film and now a Covent Garden production, which I'm writing about in the Royal Ballet programme) of The Tales of Beatrix Potter. It struck me for the first time that the Squirrel Nutkin episode is a choreographic homage to Till Eulenspiegel; and how inspired that the piggies' Pas de deux should furnish the most lush and romantic, Tchaikovsky-influenced music in the ballet. I went back to my interview with the late lamented 'Jack' in 1995, and was delighted to find how much more material I could draw from it. Also a huge pleasure to have him playing the home Steinway so spontaneously.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Autumn interlude



While Sophie (see below) sizzles back in Mali, Jeremy and I have been enjoying autumnal pleasures closer to home. The lack of cheap half-term flights to Italy, where we like to go hiking twice a year, proved a blessing in disguise - and coincidentally does wonders for our carbon footprint, since we took trains to Herefordshire and Essex, admittedly only to be ferried around to our walking-places by our hosts in the unecological motor.

Before that, we caught one of those still, uncanny autumn days at Kew, where the Henry Moores stand monolithic in the big broad avenues. The second photo was taken on a disposable camera as I'd forgotten to carry my Canon westwards - it's a bit fuzzy but certainly better than nothing. The ruins are a hidden treasure that many friends seem to know about – Llanthony Priory in the beautiful Vale of Ewyas below the Black Mountains and our current stretch of the Offa’s Dyke path. Along that we walked with Stephen Johnson (also mentioned below), musing on contemporary composers’ obsession with process at the expense of substance, and Stephen positing the interesting idea that all such should be conscious of the ‘hook’ which pop writers use to entice punters: what’s wrong with that?

Process turned out to be just about all in Colin Matthews’ newish piece launching the latest BBCSO concert, which we caught back in London for a day on Friday: well orchestrated (except in the typically unimaginative use of the 'tongs and the bones') but nebulous. Debussy, the avowed model, isn’t nearly as wispy: his ‘hooks’, however evanescent, have real power. The Britten Cello Symphony has been running over and over in my head since the performance ‘starring’ Alban Gerhardt – a cool customer compared to dedicatee Slava Rostropovich, but it was wonderful to hear him forcing the melody through in the cadenza. Maestro for the night John Adams then celebrated turning sixty with the transcendental-cum-violent choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer. C Matthews could do with some of that directness, though I appreciate his aims are different.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Cornucopia

Chris Larkin, long-serving horn player of the BBC Symphony and doyen of the brass world, has been in regular email contact since the last two BBCSO concerts. He writes as beautifully as he plays, so I asked his permission to reproduce his memories of great Gunter Wand (proffered re Belohlavek's Bruckner 7) here:

'I bought my first LP of Bruckner (9th Symphony) in 1963. I was a budding horn-player in Wigan (besieged by a strong brass-band tradition). In those days, should one wish to purchase a full-price LP at 38s 6d, one was allowed to hear a bit of it in the booth at the record shop. Imagine the impact on a fifteen year old horn-player on hearing the opening of Bruckner's 9th ! I coughed up my hard-earned cash without a thought. The recording was Bruno Walter's and the (as I later found out - hand-picked) Columbia S.O. I have it to this day. Later on I got to play it with Colin Davis, when I was in the BBC Training Orchestra, then Rafael Kubelik with the LSO, but the only conductor to have ever approached Walter's sublimity was Gunter Wand. He had as great an approach (in my very humble opinion).

'He also was a cantankerous old *** ~ but, as he always, always said after our performances (I was Chairman of the Players' Committee at the time and made it a point to thank him after our once-a-year encounters) "Misser Larkin, Misser Larkin ...es ist nur fur die musik, es ist nur fur die musik". Once, when we were on tour in Switzerland, a deputation lined up by Bela Dekany (which included me, John Chimes and David Butt amongst others) peeled off to take lunch with him at his house in Ulmiz. Anita produced a superb spread and Gunter came up with several bottles of excellent Bordeaux ~ however HE drank only neat vodka (whilst complaining all the while that his guts were giving him terrible gyp !!!).

'And all he ever seemed to want was the double or triple dotted rhythms to "line up". When it worked it REALLY worked. There was a Bruckner 8 in the Proms. Mike Davis had only recently joined the orchestra as leader and, coming from the closer friendship that he had had at the LSO with Abbado - they shared a love of football - he couldn't quite work out what to do with Wand. Mike came up to me and said "Do you think we should all stand up for him when he comes on ?" (In those days we were only supposed to stand up for our Principal Conductor, not our Chief Guest). I just said "Mike, if we do that - we will have the greatest performance in years ". We did ~ and the critics said that we were "As good as the Vienna Philharmonic" [Thanks a lot chaps................but still].'

There's more - but he might not thank me for broadcasting it. Thanks for that, anyway, Chris.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Pushkiniana

To the Pushkin House, Bloomsbury Square, on Wednesday evening for the first of Rosamund Bartlett's lectures on Chekhov's short stories. She's an enthusiastic presenter, loves her subject, and had a raft of slides which made one want to go to Taganrog and Yalta. Lecture 1 was a general introduction, prefaced by a reading of 'A Little Joke' by a photographer friend. R was especially lively on Chekhov's punctuation, comparing his commas and sentence breakdown with the more effortful attempts of two translators (no, really, it was fascinating in practice). Future events feature the brothers Fiennes and Michael Pennington. The generous host, Maurice Pinto, treated us all to an Italian meal round the corner afterwards.

The Pushkin House is classily decorated and the lecture room is hung with pictures (it's a bit noisy, as the traffic roars along Bloomsbury Way). There's a comfortable library and the House has an amazing programme (all laid out on a handsome website - www.pushkinhouse.org.uk). I don't know why it took RB's email to alert me to this treasurehouse. I'm in discussion with the director, Julian Gallant, about a Prokofiev series next year (there, at last my Main Man Sergey Sergeyevich gets a mention).

Last night was sheer pleasure with the Morley students focusing on Britten's Violin Concerto and Cello Symphony (blighted only by the usual debacle with the Morley sound equipment). Why is the Concerto not hailed as being up there with the Berg and Shostakovich 1? The way it opens up into symphonic dimensions in the last-movement Passacaglia is astounding. The Cello Symphony is harder work, so oblique and skeletal in its opening movement, but Britten wears his heart on his immaculately-crafted sleeve in the slow movement. The economy of means here reminds me of Sibelius 4.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

On blogging




Here is the muse of the current blog, my glamorous friend Sophie Sarin, in two incarnations (more anon). For over a year now she's kept us posted on the setting-up, vicissitudes and triumphs of her new hotel in Djenne, Mali, famous for its mud mosque (and now for her hotel, which vies with it for architectural distinction - perhaps I exaggerate a little).

Of course it's all a lot more 'other' and startling than a plain old chronicle of London musical life. But I enjoyed it so much I was inspired to do the same. Another friend thinks blogging is a hideous self-indulgence, a wamble without editorial interference and a bore (even when I directed her to Sophie's site - www.djennedjenno.blogspot.com - she was unimpressed). But I like it.

The photos? One is of our Sophe pumping the water away from Hotel Djenne Djenno when it came under threat in the recent floods. The other - and this justifies her presence in a musical context - sees her standing beside a bust of Gustavus III of Sweden at a recent Swedish bash in London (she has been here on a hard-working visit painting a floorcloth for Apsley House). Gustavus III, the tenor hero of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, was of course shot by baritone Anckarstroem, who turns out to be Sophie's mother's lover's great-great-(great?)-grandfather. Alles klar?

Saturday, 13 October 2007

That Czech again


Jiri (pronounced 'Yizhi' - I can't do the accent over the 'r') Belohlavek's second BBCSO concert, if anything, surpassed the first (see 'A new season') in terms of perfect programming and lively execution. The novelty was a long-abandoned piece by Zemlinsky, Waldgesprache, extending the Eichendorff poem about the Lorelei into a ten-minute scena for soprano and orchestra. Camilla Tilling brought it all splendidly to life (with a chilling 'du bist die Hexe Lorelei!') and handled the child-heaven song at the end of Mahler 4 with great skill (she couldn't do all the long phrases in one breath, but broke them up intelligently). The voice has great amplitude for a lyric soprano: my friend Isabel wondered whether she'd soon edge into Wagnerian territory - Elsa, Elisabeth, possibly Sieglinde?

BBC Messageboarders have been unbelievably negative about Belohlavek's Bruckner 7, bewailing sub-amateur execution: where and how? There were a few squeaks and pops in the Mahler, but only because he asked so much in terms of colour and articulation from the wind and the (smallish) brass section. Haydn's misnamed Miracle Symphony, No. 96, was a delight - so fresh, lilting and original. There seems to be a ?new? co-principal oboist to share with the wonderful Richard Simpson; this chap, David Powell, did playful things with the trio of the minuet. Things to hear before I die: all the Haydn symphonies and quartets, all the Bach cantatas. If I didn't spend my time listening to so much, I'd play a different Bach cantata every morning after breakfast. Isabel talks of getting us together as a small choir with a small orchestra - we know a few folk on the early music scene - and working our way through them for pure pleasure.

Lively crowd for the pre-performance talk, much more fun in the Fountain Room than the Barbican's concert hall, where the lights glare and you can't see the punters' faces. I started by freewheeling from Bruckner to Mahler via Wagner, Bellini and Haydn, and talking about the different uses of the 'gruppetto' (think Brunnhilde's theme or the big tune in the Rienzi Overture). Then I went back over some of the ground covered with the Morley students on Thursday evening - song into symphony, how every symphony looks back to the one before it and forward to the next, each a chapter in an exceptionally voluminous autobiography. After the concert, 'Yizhi' talked to Ann McKay - maybe his lack of idiomatic English makes him sound a little boring at times, which he certainly isn't as a conductor; I had the same experience when I interviewed him for Gramophone some years back.

His most interesting remark was to claim Mahler as a Czech composer which, being born in Jihlava/Iglau he no doubt is. Looking forward to another excursion in 'Czechia' with our lovely Viennese friends Tommi and Martha on the Mahler trail. Earlier this year, at the end of May, they drove us around Janacek country - Brno, Luhacovice and Hukvaldy. The last-named, the village where Janacek was born and died, is rich in atmosphere, and there's a statue of Bystrouska, the heroine of that evergreen masterpiece The Cunning Little Vixen , dedicated by the local huntsmen. It stands on the edge of the forest in the castle park where Janacek walked and absorbed the wood magic for his music.

statue of the vixen dedicated by the local huntsmen
And here's the local insignia:

Hukvaldy town badge with the vixen

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Carmen, get it?

Here's another one my otherwise open mind may be leading me to miss: Bizet's vibrant masterpiece as rendered by the ice-cold Sally Potter at the English National Opera. Orlando, if anyone really cares, is my second most loathed film of all time (Clint Eastwood's Bird is still the first, and recently I discovered a third which I also didn't see through to the end: Woody Allen's September, a pallid homage to our greatest Master, the late lamented Ingmar Bergman). As with the Ring, I have no problem with radical re-thinks, but Ms Potter's, by all accounts save the (usually reliable) Mr Seckerson, is a muddle. Alice Coote may have a certain sensuality, but she'd have to go a long way to 'be' Carmen (I remember a Glyndebourne chorene's reaction to Anne-Sofie von Otter's interesting take: 'she looks as if she's gone to Stockholm public library to look up the word "sex"'). Besides, Coote sounded in trouble when she sang Sesto for the ENO revival of Mozart's Clemenza di Tito; according to Michael Tanner, she still is. So do I make the effort for Ed Gardner's conducting? I'm still open to persuasion.

While in the vicinity of the cinema, I've been struck by the use of music in two films I've seen over the past few days. Revisiting the glorious All About Eve, it was fascinating to hear conventional Hollywood hearts-n-flowers stuff in the background to Eve's mendacious narrative of her tragic history. The dance melodies at the parties are significant, as is the stuff on the car radio when Margo and her treacherous best friend are stranded (Liszt's 'Liebestraum' pops up for a second time). Yesterday, I was taken aback by the modernity of Fritz Lang in M (why haven't I seen this film before?) The only music in the entire film is the tune so piercingly whistled by the child-murderer as brilliantly played by Peter Lorre: it's Grieg's 'In the Hall of the Mountain King'. When this bug-eyed troll is tracked down, it's chiefly because a blind balloon-seller recognises the whistle: how's that for a touch of genius in one of the early 'talkies'?

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Ring from a distance

I'm almost sorry I decided not to revisit the Royal Opera Ring, currently running as a festive sequence for the first time: almost, because three instalments of Keith Warner's incoherent vision seemed like quite enough at the time. Rheingold worked best: it's a box of tricks, and the more ideas you throw at it the better it seems to thrive. But as soon as Warner came to the one-to-ones, the electricity and communication between the singers seemed to be swamped on the cluttered stage. Until then, I'd never sat through Walkure or Gotterdammerung unmoved. There were problems with the far from ideal ebb and flow of Pappano's choppy conducting - he's been so wonderful in nearly everything else he's done at the Opera House, and really has set it on the crest of a wave - and Lisa Gasteen's Brunnhilde: she has a gleaming mid-range which explains why she got the part, but nothing up top, though she sometimes disguises it well. And then there was Bryn, so fine in Rheingold, so taxed and tired out in Walkure that on the night I went he had to mark Wotan's farewell.

All that changed when Terfel family fortunes, we're told, led to his cancellation this time round. If he really pulled out to tend to a son in need, that's admirable in a way. But whatever the circumstances, in sweeps John Tomlinson, the most athletic and extraordinary Wotan at Bayreuth in the early nineties - if I never get to go there again, the experience of that stunning Kupfer Ring will be enough to last me a lifetime - and now a grand old man at 62. I'm told he brings wisdom and world-weariness to the part at Covent Garden, even if at times he strains for the high notes, on which he worked so hard at Bayreuth. When I last saw him singing Act 3 of Walkure in concert a couple of years ago with Petra Lang, the inspirational Ivan Fischer conducting, he went so red in the face that one feared he was about to have a stroke; but the tears still flowed. A singer friend of mine who's pally with Lisa Gasteen says how much confidence she's gained from working with an experienced Wotan; Bryn's nervous first time around communicated unease to all concerned, even if it didn't show to the audience.

We had our own proto-Wagnerian experience in the class last night, which I devoted mostly to the Orestes-Pylades scene in Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride, and especially to the monologue in which he believes that calm has returned, but the syncopated violas tell him otherwise: not surprising that Berlioz went crazy about it, claiming every single note in every part absolutely essential. I'm coming to love this music more and more, especially those simple but piercing arias for Iphigenie in Act 1 and Pylade in Act 2. We'll now spend a total of five weeks on it instead of the four I'd planned - making a more fair balance between Gluck and Britten. Whether Owen Wingrave will survive the shift, I don't know, but I have my doubts about it, especially alongside Turn of the Screw, which will have the lion's share of the second half of term.

Great pleasure to be had from the 'Wigmore Live' recording of Schubert's ineffable 'Shepherd on the Rock'. Ailish Tynan may not be Margaret Price, but she invests her delivery with such effervescence and urgency that one's quite won over. What a contrast with the placid, slightly narcissistic delivery of new white hope Kate Royal on her debut disc. Communication's the thing.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

A new season


With the academic year recently under way, and the usual overload of clashing events on the London concert/opera scene, now seems like as good a time as any to launch the self-indulgence of a blog. I've spent too much time on the Radio 3 Message Boards trying to wave a shining sword against the nay-sayers, usually in vain, so I might as well use it more productively.

My City Lit 'Opera in Focus' course, mostly for the curious leisured classes, kicked off its nineteenth season two Mondays ago. The debate continues as to what we ought to be. Swimming as we do in a sea of vocational subjects designed, as the government believes, to get people in to work, is there any place for plain old musical appreciation and (tell it not in Gath) a series of lectures preface by a fair swathe of discussion about who's seen what? The powers tell me to encourage more 'open-ended questioning' and to split the students into groups for discussion. The students reject that vociferously - 'we've come here to learn from you, not to listen to each other' - and I can't help feeling that if we did more of what was asked, those who hold forth would continue to dominate, and those who remain silent would still keep mum. Anyway, the proof is in the healthy enrolment: the class fills its quota of 32 students on the day booking opens, and there's a waiting list almost as long again.

I was doubtful about the first choice of the two operas this term: Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride. Mozart he may not be, but his 'noble simplicity' has virtues of its own. There's so much to talk about around the subject: the reforms of the 1760s and '70s, the Euripides original, the variant versions of the Iphigenia myth whereby Agamemnon's daughter may have been slain by her own father to get the Greek fleet sailing from Aulis, or rescued by Artemis/Diana and whisked off to the Crimea. But does the opera hold up as drama? Saw the concurrent show at the Royal Opera on Tuesday: just about the most austere production I've ever come across, and this from director Robert Carsen who usually goes in for hauntingly lit, handsomely costumed mises en scene. Here, all wear black on a dark set; a blinding light only dawns in the last two minutes, when the leading characters stumble off disoriented. The opening scene, a protracted storm complete with vocal laments from Iphigenia and her fellow priestesses is brilliantly done in violent dance: the cycle of murders - Iphigenia by Agamemnon, he by Clytemnestra, she by Orestes - chalks up the names on the walls as the characters are flung against them. There is great music in Act 2, Orestes' false calm before the Furies return to haunt him, Iphigenia's aria of grief for the brother she believes lost. But the evening crumbles rather in its second half, and Gluck seems to throw away the great recognition scene in bald accompanied recitative. I've since spent time with the Eliot Gardiner recording, and Diana Montague makes a more plangent heroine than the robust Susan Graham. There's some coarsening of Simon Keenlyside's often excellent baritone; he makes the quiet scene of uneasy peace very moving, but flings himself around in too consciously actorish a way. Ed Seckerson noted in his Independent review that less would be more.

So I came away ultimately underwhelmed. Since then, though, fishing around the subject has proved fascinating: I've tracked down Maria Wimmer in speeches from Goethe's play, called forth the student with the finest speaking voice to read from Euripides and discovered three songs by Schubert characterising Iphigenia and Orestes. The furies scene will be interesting to set alongside Gluck's Orfeo and the underworld scene in Alceste.

So, yes, I'm engrossed by this, as I have been by going through the Sibelius symphonies from first to last in writing notes for Esa-Pekka Salonen's forthcoming Barbican series. Sibelius's diaries around the Fourth and Fifth make for singular reading. On Friday I had to speak on Bruckner 7 before the BBC Symphony Orchestra's first Barbican concert of the season, and the performance - very firm of purpose under first-rate Belohlavek - had me thinking of an interesting connection. Sibelius writes of his symphonies as 'confessions of faith from different periods of my life'. Yet so often they're defined in terms of evoking Finnish landscapes. As in Bruckner, there are great ruptures and chasms: as I listened to those terrifying unisons in the finale of Bruckner 7, it struck me that I'd tended to compare them to craggy Alpine rock-faces - but Belohlavek made it clear by stressing the anguished viola wails just before they occur that this was an inner crisis of faith. It's the same with Sibelius: so in the case of both composers, couldn't two things be happening at once - an inner landscape which finds its expression in the outward landscape with which both composers were in such close touch?

Talking to my good friend Stephen Johnson about these two composers, whom he knows so well, confirmed I was on the right track with a lot of what I'd written about Sibelius. We agreed, there is no more complicated genesis in the history of the symphony - including Bruckner's agonised rethinks - than that of the Fifth, the final version of which says almost the opposite of the tormented original. We also talked about the Wagner quotations in Bruckner. He persuaded me that the horn in the Seventh's slow movement really is quoting Tristan. It could be just a coincidental chromatic ascent, were it not for the fact that it's in the same key as the 'glance' motif in the Tristan prelude.

Originally I had a quarter of an hour at the Barbican to talk about Bruckner and Wagner (which seemed like a good idea, given that the Ring is in full swing at Covent Garden as I write). Chris Larkin from the orchestra was going to come on with two Wagner tubas (tenor and bass) for the next fifteen minutes. He's an excellent speaker as well as a fine player and had worked out in detail what we'd cram into that short spot. But a two-hour journey home after the morning's rehearsal, courtesy of the Northern Line, had blitzed him, and he pulled out at 3pm. No matter - the time was easily filled. Then, for the last third, I was to talk to thirtysomething composer Joerg Widmann about ad absurdam, his 'concert-piece' for trumpet and small ensemble. I heard it first on Friday afternoon: it's alive, like the best of Ades and Turnage, and reminded me of that garish, brilliant Clarinet Concerto by Magnus Linberg which had set the hall on fire when Kari Kriikku played it with the BBCSO a couple of seasons ago. This, too, needs the best soloist in the world - the indefatigable Sergey Nakariakov - but there's more to it than just a tour de force. Widmann has an ear for very precise sound-effects, he uses his limited woodwind and percussion with maximum impact and minimum effort, and he doesn't sound like anyone else. He's a nice, enthusiastic chap, too, and backed up what I had to say with telling chapter and verse. Must hear more.

The audience cheered and shouted at the ends of both works. Shame the programme only enticed enough punters to fill a third of the Barbican auditorium. Why can't the BBCSO capitalise on the success of the Proms, and lure more younger people to their Barbican seasons? OK, so you can't stand and move about, and it costs more than the Albert Hall Arena - but only just: tickets are cheap. Still, those who come are all ages, while the LPO and Phiil concerts I've attended recently tend to be almost exclusively middle-aged to elderly. I heard an insulting comment last night from that opinionated TV 'personality' who hosts the Grand Designs programme. He was looking at the five candidates for the RIBA Sterling Prize. Walking into the revamped Young Vic building, he raved about how theatre was now for the young, not the 'blue-rinsed brigade'. Why can't it be for both? It was the same when the LPO pulled out of its co-operation with my Morley classes because the crowd was too 'middle-class, middle-aged and white' (no loss - the BBCSO folk have been wonderfully collegial since then). I'd love it to be more diverse, but I can't control the folk who come, and by rejecting the people who do, the LPO was turning its back on its core audience.

Still, it was wonderful to see the Barbican auditorium last Monday jam-packed with school parties, thrusting young Brazilians and trendy folk, who'd come either for Caetano Veloso or (as we had) for Theatre de Complicite's A Vanishing Number (on Friday, they were still queueing for returns at 8pm, after the show had started). I can't say the play has left much of an impression. It was slickly done, the three leading actors delivered their lines eloquently and at times movingly, but the message of mathematics, infinity and humanity was swamped by information overload - a sometimes annoying score by that fusionist Nitin Sawhney, laptop-generated graphics, stuff about mobile phones which will date horribly. My experience of Complicite has been that they put the stylistic cart before the substantial horse, and this was no exception.

Well, that's quite enough for two weeks' worth of activity. I can honestly say that I'm relishing all my work for the next five days - the buddy-buddy scene and Orestes' monologue in Act Two of Iphigenie for the class tomorrow, three pleasurable CDs to review for the BBC Music Magazine and then on to the intriguing Haydn/Zemlinsky/Mahler programme - Belohlavek's second BBCSO concert this season - for the students at Morley and another pre-performance talk.