Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Billy Budd, The Barbican, 9 December 2007

When Britten announced that he was going to write an all-male opera we thought he was barking mad (just as we did when he said he was writing a requiem interspersing Wilfred Owen poems with sections of the liturgy - and that turned out to be his most popular work: it made,as Michael Flanders quipped, Bundles for Britten, just as he also said of Billy Budd, the all-male opera, that it made Joan Cross. One more quip and then I'll be serious: Britten sent Michael Tippett a copy of the libretto of Budd, asking for comments. Tippett replied saying what a good libretto Eric Crozier and E.M.Forster had written. But he suggested that a line in act One might be misconstrued: Claggart at one point sings "Clear the decks of seamen". Britten wrote back saying what a filthy mind Michael had: but he cut the line.

All this apropos two concert performances (both packed, in the Barbican; I heard the second, December 9) of Billy Budd meticulously prepared by the London Symphony Orchestra under its principal guest conductor,Daniel Harding, conducted with great accuracy, enthusiasm and perception.

It is a large cast and the performance was dominated by Gidon Saks in the part of Claggart, master-at-arms and villain of the piece. This character is so depraved and disliked that it has proved from the premiere (which I saw at Covent Garden fifty-six years ago, December 1951) onward the most difficult of roles to make credible. Saks needed no stage to project a frightening villain, masterfully sung. The audience sensed that this was an overwhelming performance by a great artist.

The title role was sympathetically sung by Nathan Gunn. The Peter Pears role of Captain Vere was sung by lan Bostridge. This concert was the opening salvo in a Barbican series devised by and featuring the tenor lan Bostridge but, truth to tell, his performance, though sung with great understanding and consummate musucianship, was the least satisfying vocally. Style there was in plenty, but vocal beauty was sadly lacking. The large cast distinguished iteelf and it would be invidious to mention one without mentioning all; nevertheless Andrew Tortise forces himself into print here because he made such a convincing sneak of Squeak, Claggart's creature and provocateur. Chorus and orchestra completed the round of performance excellence.

What a great opera is Billy Budd: Grimes was a wonderful first opera but Budd is an even greater work, like an arrow directed so firmly at the target, all of a piece musically with its unique concentration of dark colours (below the Plimsoll line ?) woodwind and brass to the fore, dramatic thrust, the conflict as Vere is faced with the opposing forces of duty and morality. That he fails as a human being is of course what makes the drama so telling. The anti-climax
when the mist thwarts the HMS Indomitable from getting to grips with the enemy is gripping for the audience. (It was typically crass that the British Council sent the original Covent Garden production for performance in Paris and wondered why it didn't go down too well, especially the scene when the officers sing the lines: "Don't like the French.Don't like their Frenchified ways.")

With all the stupid 'concept' productions that do their utmost to disregard the composer's intentions, an intelligent concert performance like the present one is something of a blessing and a relief.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Parsifal, Covent Garden, 6 December

I saw the last performance in the present Covent Garden run of Wagner's Parsifal and it was probably the last time that Sir John Tomlinson sang the part of Gurnemanz (all 65 minutes of it - the longest role in opera ?) and perhaps the last time we shall hear Bernard Haitink conduct it. The word was that the Dutch musician was going slow but the duration was only fifteen minutes slower than the estimated four hours. In old age Toscanini got notably faster, Klemperer and Giulini slower (sometimes their singers gasped like fish out of water). Tomlinson wobbled a bit at the top but nobody cared about that for the main part of the voice is still a glorious instrument. I've heard many Gurneys in sixty years but Sir John tops the lot, not only because of his voice, but because of his acting, his sympathetic approach and his effortless command of the stage and the music.

Haitink led his admiring orchestra to glory, they played their hearts out for him and, since the orchestra and the chorus carry the tunes (I suppose that in Wagner you could say that the orchestra is the meat, solo voices the veg). Petra Lang sang well as Kundry and looked well too, having mastered the art of standing or sitting still but conveying much. Wagner is reported to have considered Kundry his most interesting female role; in which case why did he confine her part in the third act to singing just two words; 'lch dien" ? She was dressed in dark colours throughout - why on earth didn't the costume designer let her slip into something loose (with brighter colours) for her vamping of Parsifal in the Magic Garden scene ? And, speaking of costumes,. Parsifal was dressed in an old jersey with baggy pants, looked as if he had just come from a village football game. Incidentally if Guremanz has the longest part in opera, Parsifal has one of the shortest hero parts, just 23 minutes singing.

Indeed if the music was glorious and did not make one regret that a balcony seat cost £175, the production was scarcely worth change for a pound. For instance, that scene where Klingsor throws the Spear at Parsifal; in the old days at least some attempt was made with wires; could not present-day technology fudge up something better than just turning off the lights as Klingsor hurls and switching them on again with Parsifal holding the said spear (money back!)? Christopher Ventris has played the Fool in five productions during the last ten years but this was his Covent Garden debut as Parsifal. He gets through right enough but he glows rather than shines and the production doesn' let us know if he can act. Also debuting in the house was Falk Struckmann, an adequate Amfortas without appealing charms - the programme is dolefully uninformative about him, as it is about most of the artists. Klingsor was suitably blackhearted in a red dressing gown, dark brown in voice and multi-coloured is nis villainy, Willard White was the singer. The best thing in the £6 programme book is the illuminating article on the opera by Lucy Beckett.

All in all then - and continuing the culinary idea - musically this production delivered a shining, perfectly prepared dish, whereas the production laid an egg. Thank you, Sir John, thank you (Sir) Bernard (hon.KBE), thank you Miss Lang, thank you Willard White, thank you Glynne Howell (a fine Titurel), but shame on you Covent Garden for not matching the musical excellence with a tolerable production.

What a genius is the composer Richard Wagner and how adored he is by so many! His admirers are fiercer in their adoration than lovers of other classical or romantic composers. The majority of music buffs swear by him. And we others who cannot abide his operas, what of us? Why do we not relish the Ring?

I myself concede that he is a great genius and I can still bear to attend a performance of Parsifal, only that one amongst his oeuvre. I am convinced he was on the wrong tack when he declared: "The melody must therefore spring, quite of itself, from out of the words; it must not attract attention as sheer melody for its own sake, but only in so far as it was the most expressive vehicle for an emotion already plainly outlined in the words. Given this conception of melody, I now completely abandoned the usual mode of operatic composition and no longer tried for customary melody, or in a sense for melody at all, but absolutely let the vocal line base itself upon the expressive utterance of the words.. I heightened the individuality of this expression by a more and more symbolic treatment of the instrumental orchestra....."

And there you have it; Wagner's vocal lines in solo singing have left the stage for the pit and the orchestra becomes more important. For the most part the vocal lines have notes related to the harmonies in the orchestra. Which becomes tedious. And that tedium is pointed up in those places in the score when Wagner returns to the old order, the voices sing melody and the music takes wing, as in much of act One of Valkyries, the Woodbird's Song, parts of the duet in Siegfried, Wotan's Farewell, the Prize Song and the Quintet in Meistersinger and various other parts of the operas, notably in the choral passages. And why does he return to writing melody ? Because of its greater power to capture our hearts. The orchestral sections capture our hearts because there are no dull vocal lines. The orchestra has all those motives which go amazingly deep into our subconscious.

Another reason for distaste for much of the operas concerns the incredibly slow pace that the drama moves at, as if stuck in a time warp, like some of the old black and white silent films. Repetition palls too of which there are many examples in Parsifal, for example Gurnemanz goes on and on, nagging the boy for having shot the swan.

Bernard Miles pondered the idea of a shortened Ring which might have consisted of the beginning and end of Rheingold, most of act One of Valkyries, Wotan's Farewesll, the Tinkers chorus and some of the love duet from Siegfried preceded by the Hero encompassing the firegirt rock, Journey down the Rhine, the glee club number, the Hero's death, march, and the finale from Gotterdamerung, plus all the bits where the orchestra plays alone. I'd book for this straightaway. And I am sure many others would join me. Wouldn't it be luvverly ?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Beaux Arts Trio, Wigmore Hall, 19 November 2007

So, farewell, Menanem Pressler, farewell Beaux Arts Trio, you gave the musical world supreme enjoyment with. your performances of a thoroughly satisfying repertoire. You gave your first concert in 1953, fifty four years ago. Violinists and cellists have come and gone,'the Beaux Arts Superior String Players Employment Agency', but you. Menahem, were the one and only pianist. You listened to your colleagues, sure. but they listened to you and your views, your style, your musicianship affected them, rubbed off you. turned them into Beaux Artists. You were the little guy in the line-up, your face like a boy, babyish and innocent, constantly turning towards your colleagues, your mouth almost like an amorous goldfish as you encouraged them to make music, to serve the composer, to play your heart out and to play every grupetto, every sforzando chord, every note and every phrase as if'your life depended on it. The piano trio is tricky to balance but you excelled in just that. You accompanied the string players, you blended perfectly with them and you only overwhelmed them when the composer wanted you too - in, say, the finale of the Ravel Trio, when you, positively deluged their trills with your ecstatic fortissimo chords.

Every phrase you placed,, seemed just what the composer asked for, you could be as soft and delicate as gossamer, you could thunder like Jove, but your playing of music that was neither loud nor soft, what might be called your 'bread-and-butter' playing, that was so meaningful and so beautiful. 'Rarely,rarely comest thou', oh pianist of perfection like the wizard who was born in Magdeburg in 1925, studied in Israel and then in America with Egon Petri, winning a Debussy Prize in San Francisco at the age of seventeen. You were a formidable soloist (I remember your Dvorak Concerto in New York) but the B.A.Trio is what the musical world will remember for a long time, a memory fortunately perpetuated in your vast collection of recordings.

Your appreciation of various styles seemed limitless, your Haydn and Mozart as satisfying as your performances of anything,later, up to Ravel and Shostakovich. We critics are, alas, apt to carp if we get a chance and when we write we remember Blake's saying 'Damn braces,, bless relaxes', yes, we do a lot of bracing. But the B.A. have had all us hacks permanently in the 'bless' mode.

The farewell concerts in Londin's Wigmore Hall on November 18 and 19 were devoted to Schubert and Beethoven. I heard the latter when they played the Kakadu Variations and the Archduke, performances that showed the maturity we expect, but tempered with freshness and vitality. Daniel Hope, violin, and Antonio Meneses are as good, if not better, than some of the other players of the past.

The audience stood at the end to thank the musicians and to say goodbye. Pressler's fingers are as good as ever but in future he will mainly be teaching. The other two we shall, hear more of. Hope is springing if not eternally, then quite frequently in the U.K. these days.

Encores? yes, of course: rather curiously the slow movement of LvB's Clarinet Trio (parts redistributed) Opus 11 and then the squib second movement of Trio No. 2 by Shostakovich.

Goodbye, Beaux Arts Trio, and thank you.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Orchestral Enlightenment

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is twenty-one and celebrated on June 30 with a mammoth concert in the Royal Festival Hall. It began at seven o'clock and the Stage of Endarkenment did not occur until nearly eleven o'clock, by which time many good citizens of Penge, Norbury and Twickenham had gone to catch their last train home.

Pluralism was the order of the day: four conductors, two forte-pianists. five bassoons, two intervals, a choir, eight vocal soloists, half-a-dozen horns, the same number of trumpets and a full house of punters eager to join in the fun and applaud the consort of scene-shifters who necessarily took quite a time to set the stage. music-stands and music.

First came Purcell's delectable mini-Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, Richard Egarr directing. Next came Sir Roger Norrington with an electrically charged performance of a suite from the opera Dardanus 1739 by that quirky genius, Rameau; music that never goes quite where you think is going but you are delighted with where it does go, wilful but tender and exciting.

It was interesting to compare the two conductors: in the Purcell, Richard Egarr directing every rhythm, every phrase, it looked awfully fussy: Norrington nudged, pointed but it was definitely hands-off directing, as if he had done all the work at rehearsal, and was now just making sure that the players were doing what they had worked at, surely the way conducting ought to be.

For the next item, Egarr came back. this time partnering Robert Lewin in Mozart's Double Keyboard Concerto in E flat, K.565, the keyboards being those of fortepianos. Unamplified, forte chords sounded like somebody in the next room thrashing a birdcage, not a nice sound. After Mozart, a Haydn Symphony in C, La Roxelane, No.65, conductor Vladimir Jurowski - Glyndebourne's music director. The sound changed instantly; it was as if blurred vision suddenly became in focus, sounded stylish and was most enjoyable.

Drama took the stage, the spooky Glen Scene from Weber's Der Freischütz , vividly brought to life under the direction of Mark Elder, and equally vividly sung in character by the ever young Philip Langridge as Max with Clive Bayley as Kaspar. They acted it out like the old style melodrama it is. Finally came Rameau's exact contemporary, GeorgeFrideric Handel, his Fireworks music, than which there is no grander music in the repertory. It was half past ten before the first rocket sounded, an exciting moment with a big band, including those half-dozen horns, trumpets and a gaggle of bassoons. The visual aspect was good too, especially the horns with their double circles of brass, the main horn topped by a crook.

Sir Charles Mackerras at 8o is better than ever, has found a kind of Grand Old Man's serene maturity and what a week he had, Janacek last Sunday and Monday, the Sinfonietta with the Philharmonia, joyous and exciting (twelve trumpets, three tubas and all)and, next day, a thrilling Katya Kabanova on the stage of Covent Garden, the week ending with the Royal Fireworks Music.

So, Happy Birthday, O of the A of E, you played all six birthday concert works with your usual enthusiasm, virtuosic expertise and lack of vibrato. Can one really believe that absolutely no vibrato was used all those centuries ago? I would have given a lot to have a pennorth or two of throbbing strings. Without that spice, music sounds rather like an egg without salt, I find.

This was my first visit to the newly reopened Royal Festival Hall, cost £13 million. What's the difference? I could not lay my hand on my heart (or my ear) and say that I noticed any great smmx improvement.: More room between the rows of seats, yes, that is a boon for long-legged punters. The changes are considerable outside the auditorium; more room to perambulate and more space for food and drink. The bookshop is now part of a building between the Hall and the railway, a block with places to eat and drink which is better for us and, of course, better balancing the books. My usual watering hole has become a Ladies and the Ladies next door has become a Gents. Big deal!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Death in Venice and Aldeburgh

There were several threads weaving through the life of Benjamin Britten: on, more like a hawser than a thread perhaps, was the defence of his being homosexual; this ran parallel to the theme of innocence betrayed. Probably this had something to do with some event in his early life that haunted him for the rest of his days. These two threads merged in his choice of opera plots; Peter Grimes, Albert Herring, The Rape of Lucretia, The Little Sweep, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, Owen Wingrave, and the last one, Death in Venice, recently seen in London and at the Aldeburgh Festival.
The thirties were a difficult time for a middle-class dentist's sone in a seaside town to realise that he was not as other men were, that he was subject to 'desires that dare not speak their name'. BB's extraordinary and precocious musical ability served as a defence against his sexual inclination, likewise his urge to win at games, a 'look at me, Mum'. The same thing accounts for his chumming up with the royals, marrying off his surrogate father's daughter to an Earl (Marian Stein to George Harewood).
Another strong thread was his composing work after work for his longtime partner the tenor, Peter Pears. Most of the operas, song-cycles, canticles, cantatas, a score of scores. I think that Ben knew that his insistence on finishing Death in Venice before submitting to a heart operation was dicing with death (in Suffolk 1976). And, by the time of composing that last opera (with a massive central part for Pears), the battle for homosexuality had been won. Gone the anxious days when the bourgeois Suffolk man was summoned to Scotland Yard for questioning and warning.
But there it is, Death in Venice exists, his final act of the defence of the Homosexual Realm, hitched to Thomas Mann's novella of an artist who becomes infatuated with a young boy. The opera is not entirely successful, marred by the passages in which occur the highflown Appolonian glorification of the boy Tadzio and his friends prancing about the Lido. As Blake wrote, "Damn braces, bless relaxes"; in other words, evil is easier to portray than good. Myfanwy Piper's libretto (Britten no doubt conniving) sometimes seems, as my colleague Hilary Finch put it in her Times review , like "research notes for a first year course in philosophy and aesthetics". How many times does the artist Aschenbach utter, "My mind beats on"?

However there is plenty to admire and be moved by in Death in Venice, particularly the orchestral parts, the ingenious as ever orchestration, and episodes like the two visits to the barber's (although the film by Visconti sensibly condenses the two into a single one). Ah yes! The film. Wisely or not, this sixtieth Aldeburgh Festival featured the film as well as the opera. I shall probably be drummed out of the town for writing that, in many ways, the film tells the story better, not so wordy, more condensed.

With time, Alan Oke will probably acquire more authority and gravitas in his portrayal of Aschenbach. Already, he sings the music and puts the words across brilliantly, but he does not suggest an artist distinguished in the eyes of the world. Peter Sidhom has a fine voice and bearing as the malevolent Traveller but the director reduces the shock we should feel at his recurrent appearances by having him change his appearance and clothes on stage. Otherwise, there can be nothing but praise for the Japanese director, Yoshi Oida. The brick walls of Snape Maltings are left bare and we are mostly to imagine Venice, aided by lighting and a five foot screen that shows appropriate film; there is real water, real oars, but no gondola. The prancing and dancing of the boys is well done, but Tadzio's looks are plain, so that one wonders at Aschenbach's desires. Paul Daniel conducted the Britten-Pears Orchestra and the student players did fine things under his direction. Could the ends of both acts have been more pointed? Probably.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Pelléas et Mélisande - Royal Opera

Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande is a sport. True, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov is an influence with its naturalistic setting of language and the Frenchman may have known Dargomyzhsky's The Stone Guest with its thinly accompanied recitative style.

Debussy had been thinking about writing a new kind of of opera for years: music begins where the word finishes. It must emerge from the shadows. Music is insolently predominant. There is too much singing. Musical setting is too heavy. Extended development does not fit, cannot fit, the words.

All this three years before Pelléas, finished around 1902 the date of the premiere in Paris, a premiere that baffled; although it intrigued many, and the last performances in the run at the Opera Comique actually made a profit.

The new production is botched scenically. As so often these days the musicians fall over backwards to do what is in the correctly what is in the score; and the production villains fall over backwards to show us what is not in the score or the libretto. This is a joint production so Covent Garden 's opera director the usually expert and knowledgeable Elaine Padmore no doubt saw it in Salzburg. So why did she bring over a production that was utterly against anything that would win the approval of critics and many of the audience? I suppose that her answer might be, that she had booked Sir Simon Rattle to conduct and a near-perfect cast.

Mélisande is usually a blonde with long hair, dressed in pastel shades or grey; here she is a brunette with shortish hair and wearing a dark red dress. For contrast everybody else is dressed in clowns' clothing which makes their bums look big in them. What the connection is, goodness knows.

It was during rehearsals for the premiere that the stage director asked for more music to cover the scene changes. Sometimes a conductor (John Eliot Gardiner, for example) has decided that Debussy's first thoughts were best and has omitted those orchestral interludes. But that is to miss some of the most beautiful and profound moments in the score, for they express psychological insight into the characters and events in the work (and they almost certainly led to similar interludes in Wozzeck, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and Peter Grimes, highlights in Berg, Shostakovich and Britten).

Mélisande is named after a character in another Maeterlinck play Ariane et Barbebleue, turned into an opera by Dukas, in which she is one of Bluebeard's wives (which is how she came by the crown that features in Debussy's first scene). Now we know that Mélisande is good at evading questions but how did she evade being killed by Bluebeard ? The character can be portrayed as totally fey or straightforward and a bit sly; Angelika Kirchschlager, the Austrian soprano favoured the latter approach and carried it out in a convincing way, a singing actress of stature.

Two of our finest baritones play Pelléas and Golaud, the half-brothers; Simon Keenlyside copes with the high lying part, is a superb, communicating performer of the highest quality, the best I have seen in the part. He says that he is getting long in the tooth for Pelléas and this was his last per6rmance in the role (May 25) but let us devoutly hope he changes his mind. Gerald Finley as the sad victim of jealousy and great provocaion will no doubt be even better in five years time but is already very fine.

Earlier I said the singing/acting was near perfect; so is anything missing ? The voice of experience says 'yes': mature character in the voice: I am thinking of Söderström's charisma as Mélisande or Jose Van Dam's as Golaud. Robert Lloyd's present portrayal of the old King Arkel had that quality of ripe maturity that the rest of the cast must strive toward.

Curiously enough, there is not a single French singer in the line-up. Now we English do not always have great love for the French but let any foreigner maul the French language about and we are up in arms. One must be able to hear the difference between e grave, e aigu and plain e; here at the Jardin de Couvent everything seemed en place.

The orchestra is a protagonist in this opera and no praise is too high for the playing, virtuosity, balance, power, passion, elegance, Sir Simon Rattle coaxed the players into the spirit of the work. It could not have been better. The big interlude in Act Four was moving, thrilling, overwhelming.

One or two of the stage pictures were eloquent but on the whole the director Stanislas Nordey seemed determined to show what a clever fellow he is and put his stanp on the production. Alas, he did. No water, no tower, no tumbling hair, no castle, no sword, all make-believe, Mélisande dies in a chair; the only furniture visible. The sets were cumbersome and had to be laboriously hauled about; they consisted mainly of vast rectangular objects patterned like pencil boxes. There were also some expensive gimmicks: one scene had a wall filled with thirty-eight rreplicas of Mélisande's red dress; the final scene had twenty male dummies. What a mess! Salvaging what is possible from the wreckage, my advice is to listen to the relay on Radio 3 on 9 June.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


"Where's your favourite opera venue?' an acquaintaince asked last Monday. Looking out over rolling Hampshire fields and countryside not far from Winchester I said I would settle for Grange Park Opera which we were attending. Truly beautiful, with a partly renovated Palladian
style house, pillars and all, in the foreground, two magnificent cedars and, a touch that would have delighted Salvador Dali, a red telephone box all by itself in a fold of the fields. And a recently built small opera house where every summer a season takes place, the whole enterprise fired, and I do mean fired, by an attractive conductor turned administrator called Wasfi Kani.

If I tell you that the programme book is priced at £15 you can get an idea of how much dinner and your ticket would set you back. Heigh ho! when financial rape seems inevitable, open your wallet and give way to luxurious serendipity, especially since the roster of operas this season includes Falstaff, Bellini's take on the Romeo & Juliet story, Handel's Semele and The Magic Flute.

But before these delights there was some medicine to take, a Russian pill to swallow in the form of The Gambler, a setting of Dostoevsky's story based on his own unhappy experiences at the wheel of misfortune. An elderly aunt comes to the townof Roulettenburg to investigate Alexei's addiction to gambling. She gets badly bitten by the bug and loses thousands. In the fourth act Alexei wins thousands but loses his girl.

This was the first completed opera of Prkfv (Prokofiev's own abbreviation) and it reveals him as still wet behind the operatic ears, misjudging the pacing and continuity of music for the stage. In a word, the score is fidgety: ideas overlap, fresh ideas occur every few seconds, rhythms, vocal lines and orchestration change constantly, likewise moods; in his desire to avoid operatic conventions, Prkfv employs the sort of kaledioscopic movement that Verdi created so effectively in quite his last opera Falstaff. However the Italian composer was by then quite dry behind the ears. The Russian began The Gambler is his early twenties but was thirty-seven by the time he had revised it for its premiere in Brussels in 1929. It was slated then as it usually has been (Edinburgh 1962 and Wexford) but it remains a challenge that some opera houses seem unable to resist. David Fielding's Grange production and designs are apt and smooth running. Prkfv himself concocted the text, retaining (apparently) much of the original dialogue. The words come plenty and fast, too quick for surtitles and it was not easy to hear David Pountney's translation. Only, as usual, Andrew Shore's words, singing the part of an old general, could be easily heard, and it was not easy to sort out who was who in the large cast. The central figure,
Alexei, the gambler, was convincingly played by Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (looking slightly like another Alexei, Sayle), a tenor. Carol Rowlands made the most of the cameo part of the visiting aunt, but Katherine Rohrer's voice, as the girl, was not at all ingratiating. Andre de Ridder, formerly assistant to Mark Elder in Manchester, coped tidily with the busy score with the Orchestra of St.John's.

There are moments when one can discern the future genius but on the whole this is a lack-lustre, lack-lyricism, lack-charm, lack-too much score, a gamble that fails to hit the jackpot.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Mstislav Rostropovich 1927-2007

There are stars in our musical firmament, usually preeminent in one sphere, but occasionally, perhaps once a century, along comes a megastar. Rostropovich was such a one. If Casals put the cello on the map in the first half of the twentieth century, then in the latter half of that century Slava - the diminutive of his first name, it means 'glory' - may be said to have extended that map, and coloured it too.

But he had other talents in music: he played the piano marvellously, notably in recitals with his wife, Galina Vishnievskaya, the most eminent Russian dramatic soprano of her day. He also composed in his young days and was a pupil of Shostakovich until that day in 1948 when he arrived at the Conservatoire for his lesson to find - as he told me one day in his own brand of English - "On wall I see notice saying Shostakovich no longer teacher, too low standard teaching." Slava was also in his later days a conductor who could make any orchestra play its heart out for him. But as well as all that, he was a rare human being, an exceptionally brave one who defied the Soviet government by housing the ailing and officially oppressed author Solzhenitsin; he also wrote to the national newspapers attacking the regime. As a result, both he and Galina were deprived of tneir citizenship. Finally, after six decades of over-working (never more than four hours sleep a night), over-playing, over-living, his health gave out and he succumbed to cancer, surviving just long enough for an 80th birthday party in the Kremlin hosted by Putin himself.

On the day that Russian tanks rolled into Prague, Slava was due to play a concerto in the Royal Albert Hall. His first thought was to cancel but then he decided go ahead. Loud opposition from some of the audience ceased as soon as he began to play...of all works, the Dvorak! Nobody who was there that evening will forget it: Slava played with tears streaming down his face, leaving no one in doubt as to where his sympathies lay.

His father was a respected cellist and teacher, after whose early death Slava supported the family. He fairly shot up as a soloist soon becoming the most famous and loved cellist in the world. Not for him the usual Russian po-faced attitude towards the public; his ugly mug beamed at one and all, and it was nothing unusual for him to go round after a performance, giving a hug to every member of the orchestra.

There were no limits to his technique and he had exceptional comprehension of the music he played, everything by heart and also memorising the accompaniments of every work he played, be it chamber music, solo or orchestral. Yet everything sounded spontaneous, he was a powerhouse of energy and passion, his repertoire was vast: in a series of concerts given in Russia, Paris, London and New York he played no less than 27 concerted works. More than two hundred compositions were written for him, many of them learned in a matter of days. Some of the most noteworthy performances were of sonatas and concerto works composed by his friends Britten, Prokofiev and Shostakovich; his recordings of these pieces reach the very summit of performance and interpretation.

Before launching himself in the West, Slava toured extensively in the Soviet Union, from the icy north to the tropical south, bringing music to unfamiliar ears and always making friends. Elizabeth Wilson's excellent new biography (Faber, £25) makes the claim that, as well as all his other activities, Rostropovich was something of' a genius at teaching; she was a pupil at the same time in Russia as Mischa Maysky, Karine Georgian and Jacqueline du Pre. He expected a lot from his adoring pupils and got it; classes were sporadic, yet once started, they could go on well past midnight. As well as music he encouraged his students to think for themselves and to appreciate, as he did, drama, literature, architecture and painting.

Was he then a perfect human being ? Not quite, of course; he was a good and kind man but he could drink like fish, had an eye for the girls and was an inveterate prankster. He would serve up a plastic fried egg to a nervous new pupil and, in a recital with Galina singing Musorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death he would play from an upside-down vocal score of Trovatore, nudging the page-turner into action every two minutes. Another time, accompanying Schumann's Frauen Liebe und Leben, he suddenly played the fourth song with the hands reversed. Galina realised that some joke was going on and was naturally furious.

They had many shouting matches but they usually ended in smiles. She knew better than to curb him too much. Despite provocations she stuck to him, supported him in his political battles. And she helped him to spend prodigious amounts of money, on cars, clothes and property - property in Russia, New York, Paris, London - they even had a house in Aldeburgh (Would one ever forget the first time he played at the Suffolk festival ? I remember him before one concert: he stood on a path near Orford Church, smiling at concertgoers and shaking everybody's hands.) The couple were both acquisitive and, charmingly, ruthless. One time Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten were cajoled into taking with them to Moscow a hundred-weight of gravel because it was needed for the rock-garden outside Slava's dacha (sand luggage ?).

As time went on Slava realised that conducting revealed errors less than playing the cello so latterly he beat more than he bowed, 18 years directing the Washington Orchestra and guesting all over the world. Every concert was a joyous event, almost like a party. His interpretations was often self-indulgent, details at the expense of the whole, tempi sometimes slower than Klemperer's. But audiences mostly accepted that, because he knew and had been intimate with the likes of Shostakovich, Britten and Prokofiev; his readings of their works were authentic.

All in all: what a performer! what a musician ! and what a man !. Indeed we shall not look upon his like again.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Les Miserables, Pimlico Opera, Wandsworth Prison

Not long ago there was an Indian girl called Wasfi Kani. She was a conductor who ran a chamber opera company called Pimlico. A compassionate person and a super-competent organiser she had the idea of taking opera to prisons and her visit was to Wormwood Scrubs where Pimlico performed Figaro and Walton's The Bear. The next year, 1991, she took the idea further, incorporating the prisoners in the performance of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd but including a few professionals in the leading parts. This took place in the Scrubs wing where all the inmates are lifers (i.e. in for murder). I took a tape recorder to the dress rehearsal and interviewed some of the cast - more of that by and by.

The following year it was Guys and Dolls in Wandsworth, West Side Story, in 1996 Dublin and Oxford. Performances followed in Downview, Surrey, Winchester, the Scrubs again and Ashwell in Leicestershire. In 2006 it was Chicago in a women's HMP in Bronzefield, near Heathrow and it was brilliant. By now Wasfi was more of a producer in the film sense that she did the paperwork and proved to bet a wizard at getting dosh from sponsors and donors, thus able to provide quite lavish decor and costumes, and to hire bands. Even more important perhaps than the artistic results was the result in human terms, giving the prisoners responsibility for learning words and music (very few of them could read music) and taking part in a company event. Most of them had never been in a theatre so that performing was a new, absorbing and therapeutic gift. What is also touching is that the printed programmes contain testimonies to the inmates's life, expertise and what it means to them to take part.

The audience has to arrive early for security reasons, sometimes having to dye thumbs and wear identity bracelets. Present are sponsors, guarantors, relatives and friends of the inmates. The venue is usually a large warehouse-type space with no windows.

The music, Les Mis was composed by Schoenberg - no, not Arnold but Claude-Michel, the other Schoenberg, the text is based on Victor Hugo (hélas!), it has not come my way before now and I must confessIwas underwhelmed. The narrative seems to me unconvincing, characters do not develop. The music plods along four-in-a-bar almost throughout and, though charming at first, soon palled, there being too much of typical American musical manufactured lyrical climaxes (as in Sondheim and not, definitely not, as in Bernstein's superior West Side Story).Choruses were lustily sung and the band, under John Beswick, was quite satisfactory.

Now last year's Chicago was a fizzing show but Les Mis I found disappointing, not inventive and not inspiring the amateurs in the cast to rise to a show of professionalism. Was Michael Moody, director since the beginning in 1991. having a fallow year? Wandsworth being a male establishment, girls were brought in for the show but all but two (Cosette and a tall girl with comedy and good projection) were feeble and their voices (and some of the men) badly needed the mikes they didn't have. Excellent were the professionals Elliot Goldie (Javert) and Blake Pischer (Valjean). Costumes conventional to the point of banality.

To return to my 1990 visit to the Scrubs. I took a tape recorder and, after interviewing Wasfi and various other principals I talked to a chorus member. For the first time in my broadcasting career, I made the mistake of getting off my subject by asking him: "What is the worst thing about being banged up for life?" "No visitors". "What, no nice girl friend to come and see you ?" "Well, I killed her. didn't I ?".

Royal Ballet is the tops

This is a good time to visit the Royal Ballet and to be proud of its achievements. And, look you, the top price for the seats is roughly a third of what an opera stall would cost you. But, more important even than the cost, what you get is aesthetic satisfaction. O.K no Fonteyn, no Helpmann, no Constant Lambert and no great new works. In the last decade or so policy has changed, as it did with the Opera a long time ago; the idea of a national company has given way to an international one; it must be babel backstage. The new order has some disadvantages but on the whole the result is advantageous.

In fact many of us consider that, under the sensible and sensitive direction of Monica Mason, the company is peaking as never before. The soloists excel and the corps de ballet has a wonderful discipline as near perfect as dammit (very nearly as good as the Kirov). Mind you, the roster of ballet conductors could be improved but the choreographers seem to have realised at last that the composer's tempo is more important than theirs. In terms of repertoire one of the revolutions has been the continuing inclusion of Balanchine works, formerly looked down on by 'Madame' de Valois - they are good for discipline as well as being masterpieces in their own right; and bridge the gap between the classical dancing and the neo-classical style. Also of course his ballets have respect for music in a remarkable and unique way.

One aspect of things today that is not satisfactory is the paucity of good new ballets, a weakness that I am sure Monica Mason is aware of. But then there is a paucity of good choreographers today (why not bring in John Neumeier ?). The vast space of the Covent Garden stage is no place for a try out for a not fully-fledged choreographer.

These thoughts were proved by two visits, one to see a triple bill (March 13), the other to see a three-acter (March 21), Onegin, as fine an example of the narrative ballet as Balanchine's is of the more abstract species. Stravinsky's and Balanchine's Apollo is a landmark in the annals of ballet, a perfect fusion of a score especially composed to be danced to, the neo-classical style, and Balanchine’s poetic and analytical choreography. It was first performed in 1928 when Balanchine was only 24. Stravinsky himself was forty-six; his choice of a string orchestra to complement a neo-classical ballet was inspired - a kind of white-on-white combination of sound and vision. The score is curious in that it manages to evoke memories of Tchaikovsky yet also including glimpses of popular music - there is a quote, for example, of The Stein Song, a hit of the late twenties. Yet withal the atmosphere is one of purity. Led by Federico Bonelli as the burgeoning Apollo the three Muses were perfectly represented by Terpsichore (Zenaida Yanovsky), Calliope (Isabel McMeekan) and Polyhymnia (Deirdre Chapman) - the four dancers being respectively Italian, French, British and American.

Next came a new ballet by the British choreographer Alastair Marriott, Children of Adam, that was sniffed at by the ballet critics as being too strongly influenced by other people's works. Myself, a non-technical ballet person who loves the art more from the musical angle, found much to enjoy in this Cain and Abel fable danced to Concerto per Corde, a concert work by the American composer Christopher Rouse. The references to the Prokofiev-Balanchine Prodigal Son seemed intergrated in this study of a younger brother (the brilliant emerging star Steven McRae, Australian) sexually enthralled by the woman of his brother who comes back from the dead to comfort his sibling (Freud fodder).

Finally another Balanchine master work, Theme and Variations that complements his earlier Ballet Imperial which was almost the first of the Georgian-born choreographer ballets to be danced by our Royal Ballet. At the premiere I saw Fonteyn fall flat on her face; as a result she refused ever to dance the part again. Both these ballets - music by Tchaikovsky, this one the finale from his Suite No. 5 in G - look back to the splendours of Imperial Russia, nostalgia, grand and glamorous, a perfect vehicle for the company and in particular for the great Darcey Bussell (soon to retire, alas) and Carlos Acosta, giant of near perfection. Orchestra excellent under Barry Wordsworth.

The surprise feature of the Onegin ballet is, that although the plot follows closely Pushkin and Tchaikovsky's opera, the choreographer John Cranko (1965) used a score that contains not a single bar of the opera. Surprise no 2 is that this works well. Kurt-Heinz Stolze, the concoctor, has taken bits , mostly piano pieces, by Tchaikovsky (just a couple that Stravinsky lifted for his Le Baiser de la fée), and orchestrated them. However for the last scene of all, where Tatiana, although she still loves Onegin, sends him packing (hooray for Women's Lib), uses to great effects the latter part of the tone-poem Francesca da Rimini. The South African born John Cranko devised a masterpiece that makes one regret all over again his death at the age of forty-five on a plane when he choked after having taken a sleeping pill.

The story of Tatiana, sister Olga, her lover Lensky and Eugene Onegin is told elegantly and powerfully. Cranko’s invention was never more fruitful than here with ingenious lifts and dramatically telling gestures. Has any choreographer kept his dancers in the air more than Cranko? And one feature is that Onegin's hauteur and disdain is conveyed more effectively than in the opera. Martin Harvey (good English theatrical name) brought the character vividly to life. The Spanish dancer Laura Morera was a touching Tatiana; Lensky's solo before the duel and Olga's charming capriciousness also come off better danced than sung. The sets are charming and the evening's entertainment was complete. The principals on March 21 were not the most famous or starry but the satisfaction they gave is a measure of the Royal Ballet's strength in that the second, third or fourth casts can give great pleasure. Let us cherish the company and salute Monica Mason.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Agrippina - English National Opera

Blind Delius, craggy craniumed Sibelius,, bewildered-looking Bruckner, retired Colonel Elgar, bewigged Bach and that blind old pro Händel - natural that we know them from their old age when artists were commissioned or friends got their Kodaks out. O.K., they were all young once; in his early twenties George Frideric Händel (let's give him his rightful umlaut for once) left his north German homeland for a spell in Italy. He knew his craft so well and had developed such a gift for melody and fluency that his first opera Rodrigo was a success and his second, Agrippina had a run of twenty-seven consecutive nights in Venice. Not bad for a gay blade of a Protestant in a Catholic country - who would never have got a post there because of the religious angle.

"Damn braces: bless relaxes". Religious music favours the first part of Blake's apophthegm,, opera the second, bracing damns are surefire in opera. "She had all the assets except goodness" said Tacitus of Poppea. That lady is as prominent in this opera as is the title-role one. Grip (for short) spins deceit as she tries to propel her son Nerone to the throne whose physical presence dominates the heavy scenery in this producion of Agrippina which I saw on March 1 in the London Coliseum production by David McVicar given by English National Opera (penultimate performance of the run but it will be back - old GFH is popular these days, even with a score of arias that always repeat the A of an ABA form, little chorus work and a length of four hours).

The performance contained swings and roundabouts, metaphorically. In Händel's day the voices, research, logic and guesswork tells us, would have had more personality than present-day ones. At the Coli the whole cast sang musically, accurately and were thoroughly rehearsed and prepared, getting tnrough fiendishly difficult passage work with extremes of vocal range but the voices lacked that elusive quality of character which enabled us to say within three notes, oh, that's Sutherland or Vickers or Callas or Gobbi. But, as I say, we have accuracy, style and enthusiasm, plus pacing and commitment under the Dutch conducter Daniel Reuss, well known abroad and now welcome here.

Production. The general attitude these days to 18th century opera - to which David Mc Vicar obviously subscribes - is: pep it up,boys, look lively and show a leg. The singers showed that they could act, they showed legs (Poppea in her undies) they sang most competently and the conductor kept them on the move, the strings played their lovely intros well and four hours passed in a flash.

Sarah Connolly as Agrippina

What shockers the characters are, regular showers! All except Claudius (remember your Robert Graves ? Him, Claudius, is weak, stutters but he is clean, well he prefers Pop (for short) to Grip,but who can blame him?). Castration not being the order of the day, we have two, no three coutertenors, including Nerone (when he gets to the top of the thirty-nine steps he will soon become that wicked Nero who famously combined fiddling with fireworks) finely played as a slouching yob by Christine Rice and there's the head general, hard done by Ottone well sung by Reno Troilus.

A word about the un-named sign interpreter. This one was quite unobtrusive, graceful and obviously knew the whole, opera by heart. Unfortunately I missed the moment when she has to sign-interpret a line in Amanda Holden's translation which is "Fucketty-fuck-fuck".

Saturday, March 24, 2007

LSO (Daniel Harding), Barbican, 22 March

With what one might call a great rattle of publicity, Daniel Harding made an auspicious debut in his new job as principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He is just thirty-one. Cannily, his first item (March 22 Barbican) was by a composer that none of the orchestra has played before; Jean-Philippe Rameau (1685-1764), a suite of dances from his opera Hippolyte et Aricie, music quite in the line of quirky French composers that continued with Berlioz and went on with Debussy, Satie and Boulez. Rameau's delightful tunes and dances never go quite where you think they are going, harmonies and rhythms that are delightfully catchy, in fact, catch you out; as with Stravinsky, you can't tap your foot to Rameau, it is too unexpected.

I admit to preferring to hear these orchestral dances, rather than with singers trying desperately to cope with the mountains of ornaments and graces that overlay the sung parts. The curious thing is that Rameau's first opera was written when he was already fifty years of age. Up to that time he composed nothing but keyboard music and treatises. After the success of Hippolyte et Aricie , he continued to write for the stage operas and opera-ballets, music of great virility, works that (I quote), 'stand like Baroque blocks in Rococo surroundings'. There are over a score of works for the stage composed in his last three decades.

This strong music was strongly played, the first violins in particular shining and soaring as if they had been playing Rameau for years. And if Rameau is quirky, what about Mahler's Number 7? Number 6 was tragic, difficult but satisfying; Number 7 sounds like a symphony composed by a composer, not writing about a tragedy, but a man in the middle of tragic happenings, a man trying to fight his way out of horrendous fateful traps. The symphony is not only difficult, but uncomfortable, and the last movement lets it down like a man desperately trying to survive but failing. The first movement strains every nerve in the listener, it shrieks, it is shrill, unrelenting, bludgeoning. There follow two serenades, not comfortable, but easier on the ear, the second with touches that recall Schumann. These serenades enclose a scherzo that is like a will-of-the-wisp. compellingly thrusting. Queen Mab meets Kafka. But with the finale the vital current seems to fail. Mahler again seems desperate, desperate to provide a happy ending, but happiness eludes him, as he tries one damn thing after another, let's try a minuet; no, bring in the trumpets and drums again, modulate, modulate, ape the baroque. But the major keys merely sound bland and unconvincing and the whole piece ends with Mahler's nerves in a tangle. And our's.

The symphony calls for endurance in the players and virtuosity. It got both, plus mental concentration. The LSO proved its top quality and so did Daniel Harding. He was alert to the main line (where there was one) and also to every detail, controlling the ship and steering it safely into port, even though the music biffed the quayside.

Yet what a master Mahler is. His use of the orchestra brings new life, his harmonies touch the souls of the faithful, and his counterpoint is, in its own way, as remarkable as Bach or Beethoven, or Wagner.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

American Ballet Theater, Sadler's Wells

How often do ballet critics mention the music? Sometimes they even omit the names of the composers. And when they do they don’t seem to sense the difference between Stravinsky and those dreadful rum-ti-tum purveyors of musical fodder, Minkus and Pugni. Of course, there are exceptions but on the whole.... So permit a few thoughts on the recent visit to Sadler's Wells by the American Ballet Theatre by a music critic who scarcely knows a jetée from an entrechat-dix. But over half a century I have often visited the ballet ever since a blessed day in the early thirties when the headmaster of my prep school took us to a matinee which included in the programme Petrushka with the great Leon Woizikowski in the title-role, a knock-out experience, almost equalled later by seeing the new ballet danced to Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini (my Covent Garden gallery seat cost all of sixpence in 1959). Then in 1947 I got together the orchestra for a Covent Garden visit by the Colonel de Basil company; I got to know the interesting repertoire and also some of the dancers.

My favourite ballets are both by Bronislava Nijinska, genius sister of the great dancer: Les Biches and Les Noces - Sleeping Beauty comes next, then Agon and anything choreographed by that most musical of ballet creators, George Balanchine. He, above all choreographers, understands the relation between music and the dance. Which brings me to the ballet, which featured in American Ballet Theatre’s opening night. O.K., you have to accept the convention of classical ballet and if you don’t, the wedding of Mozart to dancing on pointe in tutus may seem twee and an artistic mistake. Accept it and you enjoy Balanchine’s poetic analysis of Mozart's early masterpiece, his Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra. The solo instruments are mimed and danced by two ballerinas, the tuttis by a female corps de ballet, the girls sometimes grouped even to differentiate between those that are strings only and others which have pairs of oboes and horns. Tutus apart, the marriage of Mozart and dancing is absolutely complete but never academic, there is no nudge-nudge. At the beginning of the profound and heart-touching slow movement a male dancer is introduced to very the supports and groupings. (Am I right in thinking that American girls have longer legs, two or three inches, which add to the beauty of the movements of their limbs. In this ballet the arm movements are especially beautiful.

On both evenings there were pas de deux. Outstanding was Xiomara Reyes as Le Corsaire and Julie Kent as Odile in the duo from Act 2 in what all dancers call Duck Pond. An extra mid-programme item was Twyla Tharp's Sinatra Suite songs taped by King Frank, showing just a pair of dancers who begin decorously but then get a bit rough in a way that Fred and Singer never did. Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room (the title's significance was not explained) pleased the whole of the audience except that chap sitting in my seat. It dates from the first wave of aerobics and consists of energetic clichés of gymnastics and ballet accompanied by a score by Philip Glass in his minimal music style. Pierre Boulez once laconically declared that Minimal Music was correctly named. The score was played at the same time as the dancing (big cast) but seemed independent of it. All I enjoyed was the way that the costumes gradually turned red: shoes first, then shorts, then shirts. I willingly vacated this Upper Room.

My companion was unaware that The Green Table was created as long ago as 1932 and seems to reflect the politics of the times. An opening scene of a (presumably Versailles) group of statesmen is one of the great coup de theatres of all time. Ten men in masks round the eponymous table. (Incidentally, why isn’t there more use made in the theatre - remember Michel St.Denis’ marvellous use of them in his production of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex at Sadler’s Wells.

The Green Table (flatfooted as opposed to On Your Toes) is a savage, agit-propelled, dance of death with Death on the stage, powerfully portrayed by David Holmberg, kitted out as a medieval paining lookalike. The eight tableaux come in-yer-face fresh and horrifying, backed up by Fritz Cohen's music crashed out on two pianos, not great music but effectively redolent of its time. I met him several times at Darlington where Jooss's company nested for a awhile after their escape from Nazi Germany (Cohen told me to address him as Cohaine - a bit poncey, I thought that was). These were great evenings performed by our friends from the other side of the Big Pond. The enthusiasm of the audiences made it clear that this company will be more than welcome any time it cares to come again.

Ouch, I did just what I complained of in ballet critics. So, here are the composers' names: 1, 3 and 5 Stravinsky, 2 Poulenc, 4 and 7 Tchaikovsky, 6 Adam. 8 five Golden Oldies.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Orchestral Ecstasy, Concertgebuow, Barbican Hall

The Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam under its conductor Mariss Jansons spent the weekend giving a Saturday evening of symphonies -Schubert 5, Bruckner 1 - and a Sunday afternoon of mainly French music (February 10 and 11). The evening concert was well played but nothing special, the Schubert over-accented (as if it were Beethoven) and the Bruckner lacking in the warmness of heart it needs if it is not to appear one of the composer's least impressive works. But the Sunday afternoon was something else, one of the best orchestral concerts I have had the luck to hear in a quarter-of-a-century. This was a concert to remember,, music-making of a brilliant, mind-blowing and heart-warming nature, to cherish with memories of the great conductors of the last sixty years that I have reviewed, to be put beside Bernstein, Stokowski, Furtwangler, Walter and Beecham, particularly Beecham because of the warmth, the instinctive feeling for the way the music should sound, for inducing a wonderful orchestra to play its best and reveal the very soul of the composers. Excuse the personal, but I had the feeling, of ecstasy nearly a dozen times.

What is that feeling? Something like an orgasm but an orgasm of the senses, not a sexual one, a feeling of self-transcendence that makes the body shudder and tingle, "Rarely, rarely cometh thou. spirit of delight" says Shelley. Well,, it cane on Sunday afternoon. In spades. First, the Roman Carnival Overture of Berlioz. The big climaxes were power driven but there were delicacies too, the rustle of those tiny cymbals round the edge of the tambourine as well as the brazen clash of the big cymbals. Oh. those trombones of the Concertgebouw, what a noble sound the trio of players make !'

The second item was La Mer of Debussy, begun in the Burgundian Hills and the orchestration, finish in the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne. The horns were magnificent, horns of elf land but also of heavenly pomp. The first flute of this Dutch band, would you believe it, comes from Wales, Emily Beynon, a player and a musician of rare calibre. The oboes were fine too, the bassoons the very best you could imagine. The first trumpet shone like the sun on the ocean, the harps like the glitter of spume. The divided cellos in the first movement sang like angels. And throughout the afternoon the little man from Latvia, Mariss Jansons controlled, but never bossed, he cajoled his men and women to play like possessed creatures. The end of Debussy's seascapes came with vast waves of sound surrounding that monumental last theme.

After the interval the orchestra slimmed down to a handful of players for Folk-Songs of Berio, songs from America, France, Armenia, Italy, Sardinia, the Auvergne and Azerbaijan. Clever, touching arrangements, some deep, some piquant, some with the gift to be simple. The singer was the conductor's fellow Rigan Elina Garanca, mezzo-soprano, tall, blond, elegant, powerful voice, but capable of subtlety. This was a connoisseur’s treat.

Some have tried to see pending disaster, civilisation's decline and general doom in Ravel's La Valse. It is more likely nothing of the sort. The composer just wanted to write a waltz and he did so, a waltz to end all waltzes, an enticing, seductive, glamorous, swaying waltz, the very apotheosis of the waltz, superbly orchestrated, a WOW of a waltz. Jansons and the Concertgebouw gave it everything they had which was plenty, nobody in the audience was underwhelmed.

The Ravel over, there was a mighty ovation broken by Jansons picking up his baton and launching into...surprise, surprise, the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, primal Italian passion, wild applause, some reached for their coats, many others stood and cheered. Jansons looked pleased but not valedictory. He picked up his baton and gave us another surprise; Hungarian this time, not Turkey (thank goodness) but a march, Berlioz’s grand razzmatazz which he spatchcocked into The Damnation of Faust. This again reminded me of Beecham, it was a favourite lollipop of his; both Jansons and Beecham treated it with panache and bravura, a brilliant and spine-tingling finish to a truly memorable concert.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Beethoven's Late Quartets

The squadron-leader replied: "I am going to spend my week-end leave with God and the late Beethoven string quartets." Music is the most intangible of the arts, unfolding in time, unlike paintings, which capture a moment in time for ever, or literature which can take its time to capture and elaborate a moment or an idea. Music cannot express an idea; it can (occasionally) imitate reality but more often it reflects mood or consciousness of an idea; that is, when it is not abstract. Mendelssohn once said that if you could explain a piece of music in words then it was no longer music. And Aaron Copland once wrote that his answer to the question "Is there a meaning to music?" would be "Yes". But to the question "Can you state in so many words what the meaning is ?" his answer would be "No".

So how could my squadron-leader and countless others equate Beethoven's late quartets with God ? My answer is 'listen to them and you might find the equation accurate'. Although before that might come another question: is it not really God in that equation? By most accounts, Beethoven was not an orthodox believer; but neither was he an atheist. It would seem that he believed in a Supreme Being. And it has been said that all composers of truly great music must have been similar believers, orthodox or unorthodox; many have testified to that.

Recently I spent a week listening to the last five Beethoven quartets. I was transported and feel that I have been in touch with some higher state of being. Those quartets are not easy listening or necessarily the most beautiful music ever - although there is beautiful music in them – but they are surely the most meaningful, and thought provoking music that exists. The thoughts are moods, consciousness of shapes and patterns that are totally satisfying, reactions that are subjective, maybe, but ones that induce feelings of spirituality.

The five late quartets were some of the last music Beethoven composed: Opus 127 in E flat, 130 in B flat, 131 in C sharp minor, 132 in A minor and 135 in F, all composed between 1823 and 1826. In 1827 Beethoven died of dropsy and pneumonia at the age of 56. 130 is the quartet that has two endings, the original finale being the (great) Grosse Fuge (although Beethoven later composed an alternative finale, an easy going one), 152 has the Holy Thanksgiving slow movement-hymn 'from a convalescent to the Deity’ (ah, ha. Deity!) whilst 135 has a lighter touch (cf. Verdi's old age opera Falstaff) except for the profound slow movement, and ends with question and answer 'must it be?’, 'it must be' spelt out in notes. As opposed to many of the symphonies, concertos and overtures which are somehow public works, the quartets tell of the composer's rich but often troubled inner life.

They are serious utterances but by no means devoid of humour and lightness, but they are instincts with the experience of a lifetime. By his fifties Beethoven was old before his time, weighed down with the crushing blow of his deafness and the various circumstances that stood in the way of the marriage that he so longed for. Perhaps too, the intensity, the high tension of writing the late quartets hastened his death. His inner sense of music was so acute that in his mind he heard everything that he put down on paper in such astonishing detail as to notation, gradations of volume, tempo, articulation and texture. His communication with the listener is complete: with a single phrase or two or three chords he can induce feelings of love, joy, morality, mysticism and a thousand nameless impressions that cannot be put into words.

Most of his first listeners and performers thought that Beethoven had gone off his head and that the late works were not performable. Certainly he strains his players to the limit and the music is often much in advance of its time. The Grosse Fuge is some of the wildest and most forceful music ever written yet its construction is cast in steel being continuous variations on four motives, every bar related thematically, an intellectual miracle yet shattering in its emotional effect. The music is rarely sensuous but full of masculine tenderness.

Occasionally we get a vision of a soul in anguish, as in the Cavatina of opus 150 (which Beethoven thought his deepest Adagio) in which the first violin sobs out his message. The whole quartet that he thought his finest was the C sharp minor opus 151 whose opening slow Fugue seems to attain a state of grace. These words are maybe futile but if you will try (or try again) the experience of listening to these quartets, you may understand what I am trying to say; they represent a perfect marriage of heart and mind, there is no padding but there are hints of the romantic age shortly to be born.

I listened to performances of the quartets made way back in the 1970's by the Vegh Quartet that are still acknowledged to be consistently the best. Also very fine are the Lindsay Quartet and more recently the Brodsky.

Doff your headgear gentlemen!

Recital rooms too often these days seem to be comfort stations. But the piano recital given by Stefan Cassomenos on 30 January in the salon of 22 Mansfield Street, home of Mr. and Mrs. Boas, was something else; alive, passionate, dramatic as well as technically perfect. We in the audience were bonded, stirred and shaken. At one point the pianist mopped the keys; perspiration no doubt. But it could have been blood, it was playing as if the pianist's life depended on it.

It was a welcome change that the Haydn Sonata was not the usual (marvellous, mind you) E flat but no.26 in A flat, unusual features being the slow movement that begins with the left hand only – unique in Haydn's output? - and one movement that seems to have a mordent in every bar. A red-frocked priest sitting nearby was heard to pronounce it a romantic reading; none the worse for that. Then followed Liszt's rarely heard amazing study in dynamic lugubricity, Funérailles. The pianist gave it dark sonorities and tremendous climaxes. Cassomenos is Greek born, Australian bred; the last time I heard him play, he was playing on the first desk of violins in a Melbourne Youth Orchestra (strings) in a tiny village called Crottens, 30 miles north of Toulon (he also composes and has just had his twenty-second birthday).

There followed Chopin’s B minor Scherzo. Schumann was baffled by a scherzo that did not live up to its definition "How are seriousness and gravity to be clothed, if jest is to go about in such dark-coloured garments?" Cassemenos turned down the lights even- further: recall that chorale passage interrupted by high up tinklings: this pianist made the chorale a launch-pad for the high-up tinklings which here became menacing shards of light. The Australian composer Gordon Kerry's Figured in the Drift of Stars, on a first hearing, seemed to lack continuity, various pianistic devices, less a drift than a meander towards the nearest billabong.

The evening ended with Prokofiev's Sonata No.6, a performance that evoked a reminiscence of the composer, “he never entered a room if he could smash a window to get in”. The ageing composer had lost his youthful looks by the time of World War II but his music recalled the blond youth who combined charismatic charm with a tendency to behave often like a bull in a china shop. The performance lacked nothing of the brutality of much of the work, its restless force, the balletic scherzo with touches of magic and orange fruitfulness, the tender corniness of the slow movement’s waltzing, and the stabbing grimness of the finale.

The recital took place in an elegant, Adam-ceilinged music room, played on a (I guess) six-foot-eight Steinway that had been recently tended and tweaked by the Hamburg master technician Ulrich Gerhard from the revered old firm. After Cassemenos's never reticent onslaught it may need a tuning. This was a prodigious London debut by a formidable talent; yes, he could have turned down the volume a bit, and just occasionally he hurried; otherwise I think that Joseph, Franz, Fredéric and Sergey (listening upstairs) would have been satisfied and nodded approval.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Patients into 'Patience'

The theatre that is called the Assemblay Room at Normansfield was opened in June 1879 with a grand event graced by the band of the Grenadier Guards and attended by half the medical profession of London, because it is situated in the centre of a sanatorium near Teddington established by Dr John Langdon Down (who gave his name to Down's Syndrome, and his energies to looking after 150 patients suffering from that disability). The theatre is a gem, wooden ceiling, big proscenium, capacious backstage facilities, seating nearly two hundred, sumptuously decorated in the then current style. Cost to build: £3678; cost to renovate; £1.4 billion.

As a fund-raising opening Patience was exercised. Before the interval a top-hatted Timotny West (playing the Savoy Theatre's one-time stage manager) rehearsed the first act of the 1881 Patience ( a modern parallel would be Britten's Let's Make an Opera). After drinks most of Act Two was performed straight. A distinguished cast had given its time and services to taking part, some with script in uand, but all note perfect. George Grossmith - the original 'Fleshly Poet' Bunthorne - had been the inspiration for the theatre, here flashily and camply portrayed by Simon Butteriss. The title-role was prettily played by Charlotte Page with a voice that was accurate but with the cutting edge of an oxy-acetylyne welder. The stars of the performance were Anne Collins as Lady Jane and Donald Maxwell as Col. Calverley.

What on earth happened to young Gilbert that he was so down (sorry ) on over large and over age spinsters ? Yet, as no doubt Gilbert intended, Anne Collins rose above it, wielded her cello womanfully and was a palpable hit.

The rehearsal scene creaked a little but the second half was hugely enjoyable. It is not Sullivan's best score but there are some delightful numbers as the evening goes on, directed by David Steadman, clanging away on a jangly upright. Script and production by Anthony Baker. Superb costumes devised by Peter Mulloy with the co-operation of the dear old Carla Rosa company.