Wednesday, December 23, 2009


First impressions not good; action during the overture; first chorus, stage filled with a bed, nurses, benches, laptops and a woman ironing. This is Deborah Warner’s new production for ENO at the Coliseum, premiere 27 November. Was this to be as distrauting as her St. John Passion (many greetings events, including Jesus having his head pushed into a plate of soup)?

Unusually, I asked friends in the interval their reaction, including fellow critic Andrew Porter, Tex-Prom director Sir Nicholas Kenyon. It seemed we all agreed: dismay had given way to tolerance, leading to acceptance and enjoyment. And we all thought this despite agreeing that there was 30% too much going on. For instance, a coloured child kept rushing rushing around the stage, finally shaking hands with everybody: why?

Sophie Bevon, wonderful voice, skilfully used, sang I know that my redeemer liveth flat on her back in the omnipresent bed fussed over by two nurses (two! Obviously not NHS).

Musically this was an excellent performance: the soloists were all first-rate, clear, fine voiced and impeccable intonation: the aforementioned Sophie Bevon, John Mark Ainstey, Brimdley Shevrett and Harvey Bradford or Louis Watkins (treble). The lioness’ share was powerfully thoroughly taken by Catherine Wyn-Rogers. After Ferrier it seems we don’t bread controls anymore, so there were some underpowered low notes but otherwise it was a performance to remember and cherish. Martin Merry deserves to be mentioned as he trained the chorus up to the skies. Lawrence Cummings conducted with fervour and consummate expertise. ENO is to be congratulated on fielding such a great team. Chorus and orchestra are remarkably versatile; the night before they had performed Turandot, switching imperturbly performing Handle as to the manner born and in baroque style.

Deborah Warner’s production grew on one, she was no iconoclast and most of her updating was convincing. Her handling of the chorus was especially fine: they were individuals yet they were also a group.

The staging worked well (sets Tom Pye), lighting up as from the dim Christ at the beginning was immovative and mind-blowing with video montage and ancient pictorial master pieces.

Thank you, English National; can it be that you are triumphantly emerging from your operatic recession?


Dulwich College in Town

My old school gave its Winter Concert on Monday 30 November in St. John’s Smith Square. As usual, there was a big pause between items as the performers were in different categories; stage and music stands had to be reset.

First, a symphony orchestra under the College’s director of music, Richard Mayo: Wagner’s overture to Rienzi. The slow and final movements of Weber’s Bassoon Concerto were most expertly played by Leo Baker, making, as required, tender noises up top and rude ones down below. After which a symphonic wind band was set up for Holst’s Second Suite in F, tricky stuff rhymically, especially when the composer counterpoints the Dargason with Greensleaves; however, no casual ties. There followed David Bedford’s Sun Paints Rainbow on the Vast Waves. David (now 72) spent much of his childhood, in Aldeburgh, often with his singer mother’s friend, Benjamin Britten. This piece for wind band has echoes of Peter Grimes and the chord sequence in Billy Budd; at other times Bedford goes minimal and, with three cymbals crashing away, seems to be peering through a (Philip) Glass darkly. Alas, not as enjoyable as many of David’s works.

After the interval of this sold out concert we had some stylish piano playing from Tom Deasy in Saint-Saens Septet with Thomas Wilson on trumpet, a delightful work that often sounds like the composer’s friend and pupil, Gabriel Fauré.
So far, fine, good playing but nothing special. But the finale was quite superb. A madrigal choir of seventy singers on the stage with piano and percussion were flanked by some 200 boys in the balcony in five numbers, Ghanaian, Zulu, American and Aboriginal. The singers had learned these five folk songs by ear under the direction of singing master Dan Ludford-Thomas, a young, sallow-faced, hirsute, spectacled man. He was a real show off but also a performer of superior calibre. The boys sang lustily and musically, their faces radiant with the pleasure they gave the audience and the pleasure of singing with this brilliantly gifted director. The performance lifted the hearts of all present.

One suggestion; the four conductors all bowed but the boys stood, almost glumly. Could they not bow when the conductors does – and perhaps smile?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


“Music is the mediator between intellectual and sensuous life”

Beethoven (1810)

The prize for the performance of the year should surely be awarded to Leslie Howard for his playing of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata Opus 106 (November 8, Wigmore Hall). Intellectually, physically, virtuosically and emotionally, this was a towering performance. Recently a critic called op. 106 ‘grim’ but that must be a misreading or mishearing – monumental, visionary, mind-blowing, yes; but grim, no. And that was what was so moving about the performance; sinews there were but also heartstrings. The sheer beauty of the slow movement, which seemed unlikely ever to end (and one did not want it to end) is a miracle of warm, nocturnal music that seems sometimes to pre-echo Chopin. There is aggression in the bitter, brittle scherzo but it is offset by the virility of the opening movement and the colossus that is the final fugue that pounds our minds as if we are in some engine – room of the mind, pistons and cylinders crashing in perfect synchromisation. But man is there too, expressed in Beethoven’s love of humanity.

How was it possible that one man, one brain, one heart, could conceive all those late works, the quartets, the Mass, the grosse Fuge, the piano sonatas, the Diabelli Variations, without his senses caving in with the amount of continual concentration required to pour out this almost superhuman flow of meaningful beauty? 106 is the Mt. Everest of music and very few pianists can achieve the perfection that Leslie Howard produced. The great Schnabel, for example, was in awe of the work and went into retreat for weeks before attempting to play it. Even the Diabelli Variations seem a less daunting task (the Matterhorn perhaps?) but our intrepid Antipodean seemed to take the Hammerklavier in his stride, a virile exposition with a pulsing heart behind it all.

Leslie Howard never ceases to amaze. He has played and recorded every scrap of the music of Liszt and shares that master’s tolerance and relish for the troughs as well as the peaks of music. Otherwise he surely could not have followed op.106 with the third volume of Liszt’s Années de péleriuage (published posthumously). The centrepiece of the set is the wonderful acqueous evocation The Fountains at the Villa d’Este. But the others in the set are empty rhodomontade and meretricious – that word so near and so far from meritorious. And with that comment I salute Master Howard again, wishing him and all our readers a merry trishmas!


A life and Times

Alan Walker
Pp 510, many illustrations price £30

What a man, what a musician, what a life! And what an enthralling book, finely researched! Strange that this is the first life of was such an interesting, chequered existence.

Once Bülow was asked if he knew Richard Wagner. He replied: “Oui, madame, il est le mari de ma femme.” Not only was that true – she was Cosima Wagner – but Bürlow suffered her to produce three girl children fathered by Wagner while he was still legally her husband.

Hans von Bülow (1830 – 1894) was one of the great pianists of his time, greatly admired by Liszt, but also the first star conductor. He had a photographic memory; he was the first to specialize in the piano works of Beethoven (he used to play the last five sonatas in a programme, including that Everest of sonatas, the Hammerclavier.) He raised the Meiningen Orcherstra to be Germany’s finest ensemble, encouraged not only to stet while they played but also to play from memory, even a corker like the Grosse Fuge.

He also possessed a witty, devastating tongue which he used too frequently, often damaging his persona more than his victims. He was intimate with Liszt (in a non-fathering way, with Cosima’s non-mothering way). Walker’s book reads like some fascinating, couplex 19th century novel, a tangled web of liaisons dangérous uses that is utterly enthralling, a “couldn’t put it down volume”.

von Bülow was so generous, forgiving Cosima, continuing to love her, although he had neglected her, so that she fell in the arms of Wagner. He provided money for the 3 children, paid for the legal costs of their divorce and raised huge sums of money for Bayreuth. Eventually he continued to proclaim Wagner the composer whilst excoriating Wagner the man. (like most of us) His capacity for work almost beggars belief. He helped young people and also his fellow composers. (He premiered Tchaikovsky’s famous Piano Concerto when others had refused to perform it.)

His health was bad, fainting fits; he was continually at spas and health centres. Yet he soldiered on, playing and conducting despite bad pianos, bad halls, tiring journeys. He gave over a hundred recitals all over North America, hating performing, yet doggedly raising money (for Wagner’s children).

It seems that Alan Walker has left no stone unturned. Travels, programmes, emotional troughs, good analysis of Bürlow’s compositions and style of piano playing.

As you might gather from the above, this book is highly recommended.


350th Anniversary

A celebration of the music of Henry Purcell was held in Westminster Abbey on 28 November (Princess Alexandra was in the audience). It was a kind of home-coming for the composer spent nearly half his life in the Abbey as organist, i.e. director of music, appointed at the phenomenally early age of twenty until the day he died, too early by far, in 1695. (the same age as Mozart).

The programme was called “Hail, bright Cecilia”, the title also of the Ode for soloists, chorus and orchestra that constituted the second half of the evening. One of the numbers of that work is Thou tun st this world below, the spheres above, a soprano solo, exquisitely sung by Carolyn Sampson; Purcell certainly did that. The abbey Choir shone brilliantly in this 50 minute cantata, directed in style by James O’Donnell, Purcell’s successor 3 ½ centuries later, supported by the ‘authentic St. James Baroque (Orchestra understood). Here were flatt trumpets, “amorous flutes”, “airy violins”, chortling recorders and all the ancient continuo conveniences. The soloists were all good, especially the tenor Ed Lyon who salvoed in The Fife and all the harmony of war.

However Purcell not only excelled in all things bright and glorious but also melancholy, the high spot of the evening came in the Burial Sentences with music for the funeral of Queen Mary, prefaced by the awe-inspiring sound of a single drum that resounded eerily round the abbey. In this sad ceremonial there followed a dead march and a canzona for brass, the players atop the choir screen. The aspiring sentences where the trebles reach up & up again were emotionally tingling & thrilling sung by the boy trebles in this amazing piece first performed shortly before Purcell’s own premature death.

Seated in the packed nave we recalled the generosity of Purcell’s teacher, John Blow in giving his office away to his pupil at the age of twenty – and then succeeding him in the post again in 1695. Blow composed an Ode on the death of Mr Purcell which incidentally, in the setting of the composer’s name shows us that the correct pronouncement is Purcell and not Purcell. Alas this subtlety had not reached the lady chaplain who before the music began, welcomed us to the concert of music by Purcell. Tut tut!

This however was the only tiny blot on the evenings splendour of a tribute to our beloved British worthy whose plaque in the Abbey reminds us that he “left this life, And is gone to that Blessed Place where only his Harmony can be Exceeded” (the dubious grammar is sometimes attributed to John Dryden).

Speaking of plaques, last week an elegant stone was here unveiled to the founders of British Ballet. Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton, Constant Lambert and Margot Fonteyn. It is to be found on the west side of the choir, near to Charles Dickens.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Wexford Festival 2009 – late October

Emmanuel Chabrier 1841 – 1893 had a short career, has a short list of works but a big reputation with his tuneful, witty, pastel, quirky music, several operas, delightful piano pieces, a handful of songs and a few orchestral works, including Espana. He was one of Debussy’s three favourite composers, Ravel and Satie said they owed him much, and Poulenc loved him so much that he wrote a book about him. The lad from the Auvergne came to Paris, met all the artists, owned 11 Manets and 6 Renoirs; Manet painted him and died in his arms (on different days!) and Verlaine apostrophised him in a poem.

Wexford, famous for putting on rarely performed operas (and sometimes ones that should be rarely performed) just now paired his Une éducation manquée with La Cambiale di Matrimonio, composed when Rossini was 18. The Chabrier last three-quarters-of-an-hour a frothy little piece that smacks of Weekerlin’s bergerettes and Messager’s brace of pigeons. Characters three: bridegroom, bride and tutor. Tutor has taught him every subject except what to do on his bridal night. Thunderstorms and his inhibitions disappear like a flash of lightning. The issue is somewhat confused because the chap was nicely sung by the soprano Kishani Kavasinghe, the bride by Paula Morriny and the (drunken) tutor by Luca dell Amico, stylish conductor Christopher Franklin. Nice bed designed by Lorenzo Cutuli who cluttered up the stage for the Rossini with heavy blocks of stairs which producer Roberto Reccnia had the cast move around too many times. The second wedding piece gave us an English father (Giovanni Bellavia) trying to palm off his daughter (Pervin Chakar) onto a Canadian visitor (Vittorio Prato). She of course already has a partner and won’t budge. At 100 minutes, the piece is too long but the length was redeemed by the superb singing from all five principals. Quite a feat by the Wexford Management. You can’t expect vintage Rossini but he provides a very drinkable young wine.

When is a tragedy not a tragedy? Surely when nobody dies in the end? Not even when the fat lady sings her heart out. In 1841 Donizetti’s Maria Padilla he had his heroine kill herself but the censors insisted that she die of joy. At Wexford it was not clear if she died at all. Never mind, American soprano Barbara Quintilian had already sung half a million notes, florid bel canto stuff, only a few stratospheric notes off key. The first act curiously gives more prominence to her sister Inez, also a soprano, Ketevan Kemoklidze (Georgian with a name like that). Later the two would duet delightfully (thirds and sixtees in the approved manner).

It is a long opera and since Donizetti only seemed to compose with passion in act two, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to scrap the first. The music is good second-rate Donizetti, not in the same class as Lucia, the Derbyshire lass, but good. What is odd about the plotting and casting is that the part of the girls father, Ruiz, is a tenor although it is more like a baritone role. At Wexford it was quite magnificently sung by Adriano Graziano (Italian name, British passport).

The sets were fatuous. Act One was a vast jumble of breeze blocks with a rectangular frame set askew on top. Mauro Tinti, the décor creator striving for the title of Wexford Clever Dick of the year? He continued his silly tricks: act two has a score of chairs, wired up, so that you know that sooner or later they are going to be sent up into the flies. Then comes act three: nine mortuary slabs. How crass can you get? David Agler, director of the festival should have vetoed the designs. As it is, he conducted a fine performance, full of Italian guts and style.

The third opera at Wexford was The Ghosts of Versailles by the American composer, John Corigliano (b.1938), which created quite a stir when it premiered at the Met, New York in 1991. Quite a lot of the audience in Ireland seemed to like it, partly maybe because the production by James Robinson was excellent. But my view is that this is a rare case where the libretto is better than the music. The plot might be called ingenious and perhaps posthumous. Marie Antoinette, well sung by Maria Kanyova, decides at the end of the opera that, although she has a love match with Beaumarchais, to go to the guillotine again.

The libretto of this opera bufra in two acts is by William Hoffman, based on La mère coupable (1792) by Beaumarchais. The culpability of Rosina, Countess in Figaro, is that she had it off with Cherubino and gave birth to a daughter, Florentine, which has alienated her from the Count, all of whom are characters in this Ghosts, also Figaro and Susanna. The villain of the piece is one Bergéarss who wants to marry Florentine and get her parents guillotined. The opera is episodic with solos, concerted numbers and a near pantomime Turkish section. Rollicking fun. If only the music displayed some passion, some wit! There are allusions, parodies and a big orchestra employed but only at the very end does any meaningful invention support Corigliano’s obvious professionalism. Elsewhere it seems that the composer is all dressed up but nowhere to go. No personality. And it is mighty long. Up to the rise of the curtain I was sympathetic towards Marie Antoinette but by the time it came down I would happily have helped sharpen the guillotine.

One story about Chabrier: on a visit to Bayreuth he was invited to tea by Cosima and this took place in the late Master’s dressing room. Saddled with a huge slice of (German) inedible cake the Frenchman waited until Cosima was out of the room, then slipped the cake into a drawer of the Master’s silk shirts.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Brahms and Tchaikovsky agreed only on one thing: they both adored Carmen. The new production of Bizet’s evergreen masterpiece at Covent Garden is the best of a score of them that I have seen. It is also the best work I have seen by Franscesca Zambello; the designer is Tanya McCallin.

Orange is the colour of the snow (not videophone!). The dark red plush curtains of the Royal Opera House are replaced before the curtain rises by orange ones. The scenery is likewise orange. A vivid orchestral prelude tells us that the French pianist Bertrand de Billy is no goat but a capable conductor. Welcome is the use of the original dialogue and a few bits of linking material that will be new to some.

The production is commendably straight, respects the composer and has imagination. The melodrama comes across, pleases your mind and hits you where it should do. Act One was memorable for the singing and disposition of (I guess) some thirty-five children, singing delightfully/raucously. The set includes a watergutter with real H20 and there is a live horse on stage and a donkey which behaves as it should (and not as it shouldn’t). In Act Two brigands scud up and down walls and in the last act there is a splendid procession that includes a wonderfully kitchy catholic becandled cart complete with a mouthing priest fore and a Madonna aft. When I mention that the cast includes Liping Zhang/Micaela, Changan Lim/Morales and Eri Nakamura/Frasquita you can tell that the Management has scoured the Orient and Africa for singers. (Nice to see Eri again, she was the star of a young artists scheme, performed here who we praised her Manon.)

Alas, Micaela was not quite up to it, whilst Ildebrando d’Argangelo reminded me of the story if a Beecham audition when he asked the aspiring Escmilo of he was auditioning for the part of the Toreador or the bull. Elina Garanca as Carmen was a presence of fiery nature, a real mankiller and a formidable performer if not quite the singer of one’s dreams, often mistaking volume for intensity, of which fault Roberto Alagna was also guilty. His Flower Song was lusty but charmless. But when Don Jose has to turn from being lyric to a dramatic tenor in the last act he came into his own. Despite being a half-head snorter than Carmen she was dispatched as to manner born! The grown-up chorus matched the kids.

Any quibbles ? a few details missed: those bumping/string pizzacati in the quintet, the G string turns on the violins could not be heard but Bizet’s masterly use of percussion came out well, the tambourine in Act Three and the clacking castanets (it seems that no Carmen to-day can be bothered to learn to play them and has to be helped out in the pit).

The production glowed, fired and exploded as it should, on this occasion, the 523rd performance in this house, a performance worthy of its composer. What a masterpiece it is every egg a bird! Every detail showing a master and wonderful counterpoint, deftness, charm and passion in number after number.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Richard Adeney
Brimstone Press
(PO Box 114, Shaftsbury SP7 8XN)
£12.50, p.222

If the performance is routine, perhaps with a duff conductor, sometimes a solo by one of the players will lift things onto another plane, the orchestra suddenly slips from the routine to the sublime, the spirits soar, life climbs up a notch.

In World War 2 I worked in a humble capacity for the London Philharmonic Orchestra and went to many of their concerts in and around London. There were two players in the LPO at that time who regularly were able to lift the orchestra up by its boot straps and lodge us in heaven, maybe for the rest of the evening. One was the first trumpeter, Malcolm Arnold, before he became known as a composer; the other was the first flute, Richard Adeney. They were both in their twenties, replacing older men who had gone off to fight.

Richard was handsome, an introvert, unlike Malcolm who was quite good to look at, but as extrovert as it is possible to be. But the sound Adeney made, the nuances he effected, the quality of his musicianship was magical; he could put a spell on us all in the audience.

Richard played a decade with the LPO, became freelance for a decade, playing often with the Melos Ensamble. His recording with that group of the Debussy Sonata for harp, flute and viola is still deeply satisfying – with two great players: Cecil Aronowitz and the harpist Osian Ellis. Then came the years with the English Chamber Orchestra, complete Mozart Piano Concerto, first with Daniel Barenboim and later with Murray Perania. In between came years directed by Benjamin Britten; operas, concerts and without a conductor, the three church parables where the players dressed as monks. Came his sixties and Richard packed up his flutes and sold them, exchanging them for photography; he had exhibitions and some of his work is seen in this book. Coming up to 80 he disposed of his cameras. He looks now in very good shape so at dinner the other day asked him to what he attributed his good health. Over the soup he answered “Sex four times a week” but over the coffee he said “John, I exaggerated – twice a week”.

In the book Richard recalls that in his teens he decided that “I wanted three things from life:

first: that I would become the best flute player in the world.
second: to have a huge amount of sex.
third: to make some sense of the mysterious and confusing world.”

Well, his book shows that he has done well on all counts. Certainly as a chamber music and orchestral player he was the tops. And he hasn’t done too badly in the other categories. He writes well and entertainingly, never hesitating to call a spade a bloody shovel. But better than his spicy stories and cuss words, he gives a better idea than I’ve come across anywhere else of what it feels like to play in an orchestra. He doesn’t quite tell us what it is like to be a homosexual but he gets near. The insight and stories about the orchestra and its conductors are enthralling. Strong likes and dislikes, some expected (Sargent), some unexpected (Abbado).

Nobody who has lived thought the musical scene of today and yesterday should miss this fascinating book. R.A. the man is quiet, even a little shut in, self-effacing. But his book comes at you boldly colourful and thought provoking.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


A musical opinion on the latest production of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (October 5) would have to register: Tolerable singing, passion in the pit but Sterility in the staging. The villain is the producer/director Christof Loy, whose lack-lustre and lack-lust Lulu, his previous Garden production, should have caused the management of the Royal Opera House, and it’s music director in particular, to cancel Loy’s participation in the present new Tristan. His policy eliminates gesture (which might be thought to be essential in presenting any drama or opera on the stage) and imposes Loy on Wagner’s great work. The concept includes no ship, a posse of actors in evening dress not minding a ship, modern clothes, no daylight, no bed, one chair in act one, two chairs and a table in act two, Isolde removing Brangane’s dress, and a damned great wall that doesn’t fit the stage on one side of it.

The back of the stage is curtained on and off, the foreground is bare. This concept staging was greeted on opening night with booing. Now booing is something surely not to be approved of, but it does indicate that all is not well. This is particularly regrettable because otherwise there is much to be enjoyed. The orchestral playing is very fine indeed under Antonio Pappano. The singing is not perfect, except for an outstanding Kurwenal from Michael Volle. Alas, his is the only voice free from wobble or a beat that prevents the sound from being true. Of course this is a fault common to many singers today, in Wagner in particular. If you were to hear this cast on the radio or a CD it would be more tiresome than in the flesh. The awful thing is that listeners have got used to this. Listening to recordings of singers like Flagstad, Maggie Teyte, Birgit Nilsson or Fischer-Dieskau would point out the difference. So would listening to Michael Volle, fine actor and a bang in the middle of the note singer.

Nina Stemme acts a fine Isolde, and her top and piano notes were beautiful.

Was it chance or by design that the voice of Sophie Koch (Brangane) is so similar to that of Stemme that from a distance it was difficult to tell which was which? Ben Heppner’s voice has not much sap left but he put up a good show. But he is no hero, no lover, no captain of a ship (more likely a tugmaster). I heard somebody say he looked like a hundredweight of condemned meat. Stretched out on the floor Tristan looked like a beached whale (Loy seemed to have no concern for his ageing tenor). Sir John Tomlinson had stepped in for an ailing Matti Salminen. As always he gave a credible performance and we all love him, although his voice is now showing signs of wear and tear, fraying at the extremes (as King Marke).

So, this was a Tristan not only wounded in act two, but throughout by the stage director. Fortunately, Wagner’s music lived to tell the tale and grip a large and appreciative audience.



The last thing we see in this new production of Ligeti’s opera by English National Opera in the London Coliseum, first night September 17, is a hand pulling a lavatory chain. If this suggests that the whole evening has been a load of crap, so be it. This is not so much the theatre of the absurd as the opera of the cloacal.

In Alan Bennett’s play the Schoolmaster observes: When humour has to descend into the lavatory, the writing is on the wall. The writing in the programme book is full of intellectual flim-flam but Ligeti’s theatre piece, premiere 1978 in Stockholm, intends to shock, to stick its finger in your eye. In the following thirty-one years it has had twenty-five different productions in Europe and America staged by thirty-three opera companies. Of modernish operas, only Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtensk and Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes seem to be the ones to have enjoyed such a spate of productions. And, curiously enough, all three of these operas have an orchestral passacaglia at the heart of their scores.

So, although I might prefer, as it were, to pull the chain on Ligeti I must describe a few details. This new production is based on one by the Catalan collective La Fura Dels Baus and has already been seen at La Monnaie, Brussels and the Teatro dell’ Opera in Rome. After six performances in London it will be seen in Barcelona’s Gran Teatro del Liceu and later at the Adelaide Festival in Australia.

The text is partly by the composer himself, after Michel Ghelderode’s play La Balade du Grand Macabre. The décor mainly consists of a 20 feet high fibre-glass figure of a naked woman (with a face somewhat resembling the cricketer Mike Atherton). This monster’s eyes light up, various parts of its body open up and are detachable (foot, backside, nipples) it revolves frequently. Members of the cast go in and out of her (she is called Claudia) and sometimes climb and walk around her – Alfons Flores designed her. The whole production is fascinating, even awe-inspiring, and a miracle of ingenuity. Décor and action hark back to the paintings by Bosch (The Garden of Earthly Delights) and Breughel (The Triumph of Death). Those medieval painters invented surrealism and all kinds of obscenity. But seen moving on a stage they can still produce a frisson of shock, a giggle and eventually, a yawn.

Scene three, for example, begins with Claudia’s bum (excuse me ... and there is worse to come) facing us and in a moment a face appears in the crack of it. It opens up and we see Claudia’s tripes which soon tumble out. No holds are barred and many of them are ingenious. It often appears that the theatrical avant-garde is to be seen in our age in the opera rather than the play house. Musicals sometimes show advanced stagings but they don’t set out to shock quite like Grand Macabre.

But, hey, this is supposed to be an opera! What of the music? Well, there isn’t much. And it doesn’t compare with many other works by Ligeti. The score is not as offensive as the action. There are melodic fragments occasionally, lots of bangs from the percussion, squeaks from the woodwind and so on. The vocal writing does not beguile. The only real music comes late in the proceedings, the afore-mentioned passacaglia, the opening of the fourth and last scene, and towards the end, the orchestra has some interesting material. The work seems to have come to a close (consumetum est is sung) but then there is another fifteen or more minutes which do not add anything dramatically or musically. There are in the score various allusions and parodies but unless you know where they come, you might miss them.

This show contains no musical catharsis, does not grip your deeper emotions, as Grimes or Lady Macbeth; it comes over as a rather childish, unsophisticated, out-of-date exercise in let-it-all-hang-out, a vastly expensive waste of time for those in front of and behind the curtain.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (that tenor who specializes in the bizarre) plays Piet the Pot, Susan Bickley is Messalina, and Susanna Andersson is Venus doubling as Gepopo, Chief of Police. To all of them, my thanks …. and condolences. Baldur Brönimann steers chorus and orchestra efficiently.

I met Ligeti several times and found him charming, highly intelligent, warm, funny and serious. Not a sign of the emotional chips that might have been expected on his shoulder – he suffered under fascism and Stalin, his family all killed. He was also uninhibited; it wasn’t safe for a woman to be alone with him.

What would he have composed if he lived longer? A song-cycle Pee, pot, belly, ho, bum, drawers, a cantata Tourette’s Syndrome or the opera Sodom and Gomorrah? Or perhaps another fine Violin Concerto, more masterly Atmosphères, more interesting piano pieces or further witty Aventures?

Friday, October 02, 2009


Traditionally the Devil has all the best tunes, but in Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust the tenor has some good ones and Marguérite has some of the best, haunting, tender, fey. Not that the Devil lacks tunes. Berlioz doesn’t please everyone but the Barbican was full of the faithful on September 22 and they were rewarded with a fine performance in the hands of Valery Gergiev with the chorus and orchestra of the London Symphony in cracking form.

This was part of a series concerts with the baritone Thomas Quasthoff at the centre. Unfortunately he was taken ill at the last moment. Phones rang and Sir Willard White flew from Copenhagen to the rescue. These days Willard looks grizzled as if he might break any moment into Ol’Man River. His bottom notes are sounding a bit thinner now but his top Fs rang out clearly and sonorously. He showed his mettle and his compelling presence. A great performance.

Joyce diDonato proved once again what a great artist she is but I think she was miscast as Marguérite. She is a mezzo with a dramatic soprano top register where surely what is called for is a gentler, more atmospheric sound (Victoria de los Angeles was ideal). The voice of Michael Schade, Canadian tenor, is fluent, French sounding and he was every inch but one a good Faust. But the voice is not ideally lyrical or mellifluous.

What incredible imagination Berlioz shows here, perhaps the greatest Romantic of all! Damnation has often been staged but Berlioz conceived it as a concert cantana with the listener free to follow in his head the dream like sequences. Recall the lady who said she preferred drama on the radio rather than television because the scenery was better. Berlioz kindles fire in the imagination and stimulates the mind, the music dissolving from one venue to another in a way that anticipates the cinema, digging deep into the sub-conscious in this old story using new ways with melodies, shapes, harmonies and orchestrations that appeal (to the faithful).

Always amazing, for example, is the sound of a flute and two piccolos that squirm and wriggle like small fish (actually portraying the will-o-the-wisp).

Of course it is not all imagination; with Berlioz there is an extraordinary organising mind and technical know-how, almost know-all.

Does his inspiration falter a little at the end with the ride to the abyss? Maybe, but Gergiev came near to bringing the finale off, recalling those great Berlioz conductors, Beecham and Hamilton Harty. I remember how Harty got the Berlioz sounds by exhorting the orchestra: “Come on boys, DEVIL!”.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


A Concert of charm, spice and virtuosity

St. James in Piccadilly is the only Wren Church built on an original site – consecrated 1684. Wren wrote of the church “I think it may be found beautiful and convenient”. Convenient for concerts because of its clear bright acoustic, it was the venue for what was proclaimed as a Concert for Peace given by an excellent pick-up chamber orchestra named MANA – Musicians Against Nuclear Arms, all giving their services. There were speeches needless to say, all in favour of the cause. The programme ended with the only classical work, Haydn’s London Symphony.

The evening began with the suite that Fauré selected from the music put together for a commedia dell’arte entertainment given in Monaco in 1919. By this time Fauré’s deafness was so bad that only the sound of the voice gave him any pleasure, that of the orchestra was a rattling nightmare, high sounds flat, low notes sharp. As usual he enlisted help with the orchestration. Both the first and third of the four movements were rehashes of earlier works. The overture bubbles along in a joyous way, The Gavotte is sturdier than most Fauré. The final Pastoral is the most interesting, less meandering than some of his late music, it is fragrant, beguiling and harks back subtly to the themes of the overture. The conductor was alert to all its charm; this was Levon Parikian, son of the distinguished violinist, Manoug.

Parikian gave a fine accompaniment to the second item, Debussy’s Danse Sacrée et Danse Profane, most exquisitely and eloquently played by the solo harpist, Christina Rhys. Next came the Poem for flute and orchestra by Charles Tomlinson Griffes. This composer died young (1884 – 1920) produced what Virgil Thomson described as ‘first class music’, including a Piano Sonata, and the orchestral Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan and this fascinating Poem. Damrosch, Monteux and Stokowski all performed Griffes. His style changed, at first revealing his Berlin training, later his interest in the East and the dissonance of Schoenberg. Griffes had gone a long way since his sporadic studies with old man Humperdinck. The brilliant soloist here was the Lebanese flautist Wissam Boustany who then played his own solo work …And the Wind Whispered. This was an atmospheric piece in which he made evocative sounds and effects that I have never heard before on the instrument. One seemed wafted away into the realms of nature, the sounds not only recalling the wind but also birds flocking, wheeling and fluttering. This was a rare experience of wild calls and exciting trills. Quite out of the ordinary. The audience was rapt. Levon Parikian is to be congratulated on his direction of the orchestra and his enterprising choice of programme.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


Bread and Jam

Rossini once exclaimed how wonderful opera would be if there were no singers, a thought that came to me forcibly when sitting through Tristan, maybe for the last time. When Wagner writes melodically for the voices I enjoy it: the Prize Song, the opening of the quintet in the same opera, act one of Walküre, the choruses in Götterdämerung and so on. But usually the vocal lines are not melodic but are notes from within the harmony. The orchestra has all the tunes. Take, for example, the very end of the Liebestod: the tunes are all in the pit while Isolde has notes compatible with the harmony; in other words, the orchestra has the jam whilst Isolde has to be content with the bread.

Of course the words are important but then why not give them a tune to put them over? After all, if the old man of Busseto could manage that, why not the old man of Bayreuth? Is it because writing melodically harks back to earlier works by Wagner and others (the majority) And what about the standard of Wagnerian singing? How rarely does a singer nowadays match the beauty of sound that a flute, a cello or a horn has. Singers now often rarely sing in the middle of the note: they wobble, they bulge, they are shrill, unlovely. If instrumentalists made the ugly sounds that Wagnerian singers make, they would get the sack, wouldn’t they? Sometimes my colleagues think I am old fashioned. O.K., I am; because the fashion I got used to years ago was one where singers sang in the middle of the note: Flagstad, Vickers, Baker, Shirley - Quirk, Teyte. Why should I be content with out-of-tuneness and wobbles? Of course, there are singers today who sing in tune: mostly in baroque or earlier music: singers like Emma Kirkby, Sansom and a few others.

Ich grolle.

But that doesn’t mean that I doubt for a moment that Wagner is /was a towering genius. The prelude to Lohengrin is a miracle of beauty and totally innovative. Those leit-motives in the Ring really dig deep into a magic world, the shadowy territory of the subconscious. At Glyndebourne (August 18) I was as usual thrilled to the depths of my being by the first entrance of Tristan, the prelude of the opera, the lead up to the love duet, the brooding darkness and shimmering light of the act three prelude – curiously enough, all passages without any voices! Juroski, the conductor, I thought marvellous, even if there was so much emotion in the prelude that it was almost a case of premature whatsit.


Professor Barry Cooper in his Prom programme note gives an assessment of his character somewhat different from the usual one of a man irascible, intolerant, treating relations badly and his dwelling place (frequently changed, servants fled from his employment) awash with brimming chamber pots. So far, so dubious. But the professor has one perceptive sentence about the music: “its combination of beauty and unpredictability, extreme emotional depth and intellectual rigour, across so many genres, is unsurpassed and probably always will be.”

Beethoven also had the gift, often to be heard in his opera Fidelio, of giving an impression of moral goodness achieved with the simplest of means by the juxtaposition of the two commonest cadential chords, the tonic and the dominant. The performance of his only opera at the Proms (22 August) did justice to the work and that is saying a lot. Daniel Barenboim (now possessing an Palestinian as well as an Israeli passport) conducted his unique East-West Divan Orchestra, a magnificent chorus (BBC & the George Mitchell singers) and a superb cast.

Waltraud Meier personified the central character Leonora (Beethoven’s heroine and his own preferred title to the opera of 1805); her singing and her shining top A’s were memorable (despite some imperfectly tuned lower notes). As well as singing, she narrated Edward Said’s the script spoken in character of Leonora who, dressed as the youth Fidelio, rescues her husband Florestan, imprisoned by the villain Pizarro. This narration replaced most of the opera’s spoken dialogue and that was a pity.

Speaking of replacement, the evening began, not with Beethoven’s final choice from among the four overtures that he composed but with the mighty tone-poem that is the Leonora Overture No.3, a lengthy master work that seems to tell the story of the opera in a gigantic nutshell. The composer finally discarded it and wrote the shorter piece known as the Fidelio Overture which he considered more suitable as a prelude to the domestic first scene of the drama. I think Beethoven was right.

The Australian tenor Simon O’Neill sang Florestan’s de Profundis prison aria with golden tones but seemed to tire subsequently, for in the radiant A major trio following his rescue the gold had turned almost to tin. Ideal throughout was John Tomlinson’s portrayal of gaoler Rocco. Adriana Kucerova was good but her voice was not that of a light lyric soprano (Marcellina at the ironing board) buts more like a Leonora waiting in the wings, i.e. a heavier type of voice – smashing red dress, as seen on telly! Sad to say, neither her would be-lover, Jacquino, nor the villain Pizarro, were up to scratch. But the two gaol birds in the heart breaking Prisoners Chorus were strikingly good, Andrew Murgatroyd and Edwin Price. Orchestra & conductor were on top form and deserved our thanks for some great music making.

Fidelio may not be the finest opera, but much of the score is surely some of the greatest operatic music ever composed; the quartet where all four singers express individual thoughts yet sing the same music, Leonora’s outraged and beautiful aria with three solo horns, the prison aria, the dénoument with trumpet calls, the radiant duet and trio after the rescue, these are Beethoven at his most sublime.

Two details: Beethoven took some inspiration from the ‘rescue’ operas by Cherubini yet the composer he almost quotes here is Mozart. And re those famous trumpet calls which get progressively louder. Why do they? Surely it is the rescuing governor who gets nearer, not the watching trumpeter.

Some friends of Beethoven said that the man was almost as remarkable as the composer. Hearing Fidelio so movingly and eloquently performed it is easy to forget the irritable, untamed, domestic (and don’t forget: frustrated) man and listen in awe and wonder at the noble achievement of this great composer.

Monday, August 17, 2009


It is good that music is once more a social affair. Not perhaps to the extent of music-making in the home, as was once the custom. Nowadays it takes the form of concerts and operas in churches, halls, stately and not quite so stately homes, with picnics and glasses of wine.

Last month (August 1) I went to a fairly new venture in Hampshire not far from Basingstoke, in West Green House where a famous Australian Gardener (several books) lives. Her name is Marylyn Abbot and her love of music has led her to put on opera. Last year she invited a group from the famous Drottningholm Theatre (perfectly preserved small opera house just outside Stockholm) to perform; this year Opera Project are in residence for Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and another weekend, a double bill of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (Yvonne Kenny as the forsaken Queen) and a mock Opera Pyramus and Thisbe, based on act five of Shakespeare’s magic comedy, composer John Frederick Lampa, a contemporary of Handel.

The gardens of West Green are sumptuously rich, well worth the special journey. There is quite a large lake, around which are several pavilions and a large marquee for gorging and swilling in the interval. A Theatre has been knocked up with seating for 230 and a pit for the band. Not a big pit but large enough for the ten players (single strings, single woodwind and a horn) that Jonathan Lyness, the excellent conductor, has produced a boiled down score for (very skillfull).

I don’t think you would know the names of any of the singers but they were all young, had been well taught to carry the action effectively and agreeably by Richard Studer. Only Mrs Almaviva was not quite up to her solos and the ensembles fairly fizzed along. Amanda Holden’s fine English version was used and a good time was had by all despite dismal weather.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Mark Twain once said that a Wagner opera started at six o’clock and when it had been going for two and a half hours your watch said twenty to seven. With Janacek it is quite different. After an act during which you are put through an emotional wringer your watch tells you that the act lasted just half an hour. Fanciful, of course but Janacek’s dramas are condensed to the bone. There is urgency but no hurry the characters are in depth, you know them well, you feel for them. Janacek’s material for one act would last two hours if the composer were Richard Strauss or Wagner. I always associate Janacek with Chekhov who similarly condenses and conveys much with minimal material.

Janacek hits you between the eyes (and sometimes below the belt) and so it was at Opera Holland Park on July 30 with Kat’a Kabanova the whole opera hardly exceeds ninety minutes yet by the end we feel that catharsis has happened. The orchestral role is as important as the heroine’s, perhaps more so; surely she is the most neurotic female in all opera: she dithers hopelessly on an emotional precipice, poor darling, before drowning herself, having crassly blurted out her adulterous guilt in front of the convention-ridden neighbours. In her last scene Janacek gives her a soaring phrase that is the ultimate in tear-provoking beauty.

The French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels was thoroughly convincing in the title role, both vocally and dramatically. I had not encountered the conductor before now but I hope to do so again, for Stuart Stratford directed a memorable and satisfying performance, directing the City of London Sinfonia to heights of passion and virtuosity. The composer puts his fiddlers through many hoops, make them scream away up in the rosin and cope with keys that are difficult, and they have to play many diddle-diddle passages with ferocity.

The bitch of a mother-in-law was vividly played by Anne Mason and Tichon likewise by Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts. Usually this wimp of a husband is played by a small singer but here was a big burly wimp; all the more telling to see this giant of a man cringing before his ghastly mother. It was good to see that mother’s lover played by Richard Angus; he is by now a real veteran but still in good voice. And what a voice! It is like the thickest and darkest brown Windsor soup.

At first I thought the movements of the chorus exaggerated but as time went on I appreciated their stylisation as the most Victorian-style hostile mob. Olivia Fuchs direction had both respect for the score and a likely invention; costumes and designs by Jannis Thavoris very good.

What a master Janacek was and how amazing that in the last decade of his life he poured out so many works, operas, string quartets, big orchestral works and a whopping great mass!


Jolly Good Show

Purcell’s The Fairy Queen is usually described as a semi-opera in a Prologue and five acts, libretto by anon, an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Act one drags a bit; after a breezy overture there is no music for quite some time while actors speak a courtly, rather tedious, conservation piece. This is an expensive piece to put on since it requires actors, a bevy of dancers, many singers, a chorus and a band in the pit. At Glyndebourne (I was there July 10) the super skilled and lively Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was directed from the harpsichord by the great William Christie, a wonderful scholar who energised his forces superbly.

The latter four acts each contain a masque that reflects various stages of the Dream: Sleep, Seduction, the New Day/the Seasons and Marriage, the last an essay in chinoiserie, worth waiting for in a three-hour stint, because it has some of the best music. Most people will know the song of the D-d-drunken Poet, the comic duet of Corydon and Mopsa (enacted on a credible-looking haystack) and Hark, the Echoing Air, possibly The Plaint too. The orchestra has act tunes and the quaintly named Symphony While the Swans come Forward. There are nearly sixty numbers altogether, many solo numbers, ensembles and choruses. Glyndebourne fielded seventeen solo singers, among whom Lucy Crowe and Carolyn Sampson shone particularly brightly. The singing was of a high standard, the chorus was first-rate and a good time is had by all.

Jonathan Kent’s direction (designer Paul Brown, brilliant invention throughout) is serious and rollicking by turn, never in bad taste, always serving the music and the composer. A favourite scene is one where the stage is awash with man-sized rabbits, all rutting away.

The first performance of the work was in London and cost £3000, a figure roughly equivalent to half a million of today’s money. At Glyndebourne no expense was spared: this was a bold choice and a thoroughly successful accomplishment. Sally Dexter was an imposing Titania and the Rustics did their comic stuff winningly, led by Desmond Barrit as a really funny Bottom – their words came over much clearer than the rest of the cast. Incidentally, six singers were recruited from Glyndebourne’s chorus, a feature which worked well.

Purcell’s music never fails in liveliness, tenderness and appositeness, the score is full of heart-easing melodies, catchy rhythms, metrical quirks and daring harmonies. The work is something of a hodge-podge but one fashioned by a genius.

21 July The Fairy Goes to Town

To the Royal Albert Hall, to pinpoint it, for a BBC Prom starting at 6.30 and over-running until 10.30. And the big question was; how would the very, visible Glyndebourne show transfer to the Albert? Answer, very well. Listeners at home missed a lot, of course, because the relay was radio, not telly. But the Radio audience would have heard the outstanding musical performance noted in the previous review and they would have heard 5000 people in the hall roaring with laughter at the jokes and the business; a stimulating thing to hear. In the hall Glyndebourne had done a marvellous, sumptuous, clever job. The site was a large platform covering most of the stage area which existed behind the small orchestra, strings, oboes, trumpets, two harpsichords (William Christie, the director at one of them) but no double basses. (Purcell didn’t use any).

No sets but all the costumes, lavish, eloquent, even down to the monkeys and the rampageous rabbits. Everything was danced, spoken and acted as at Glyndebourne. This was a Prom de luxe, thoroughly enjoyable (every hour of it!) One musical feature that I didn’t mention; Purcell’s clever, dramatic use of silence, gosh, that man was up to so many telling devices. And controlling everything carefully but yet with an air of spontaneity as was William Christie. We owe him much. He’s a master.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


I went to the Summer Programme of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme in the Royal Opera House on Sunday afternoon 9 July. I was expecting a recital of Operatic items, possibly with Papa Papano at the piano. But no, the Welsh National Opera Orchestra had come up for the day and the first half was fifteen staged scenes of Don Giovanni, and after the interval, three chunks of Massenet: the overture from the incidental music for Phèdre, the scene from Werther when the hero returns after Charlotte and Sophie have had their duet; this was followed by the Saint Sulpice scene where Charlotte re-seduces Werther.

These Young Artists are part of an educational programme, the singers being taught their craft and taking small parts in the Big House. The performance was extremely professional and well prepared. Thomas Guthrie was responsible for a minimalist but effective production with good costumes by Ilaria Martello. There were just a few props such as a harpsichord for Charlotte and some cute brolly-drill while the Don sang his champagne–less champagne aria.

Don Giovanni began not too well with ill-balanced chords, the overture played as though volume was a substitute for intensity. This malaise spread somewhat to the singers, possibly wary of projecting their young voices in the big space of the Opera House. A pity because when they did not force their tone, there was plenty of musical understanding, good phrasing, and first-rate acting. Pumeza Matshikiza (South Africa) was a convincing Elvira and sang some of her music very well. Anita Watson (Australia) was plumb accurate but overdid the volume, I found. Zerlina was Simona Minai (Romania), charming but with a voice more dramatic than lyric soprano. The Don, Kostas Smoriginas (Lithuania) was excellent, full voiced , a competent performer and singer, Leporello Vuyani Minde (South Africa) was also good. Rory Macdonald accompanied the singers expertly.

After the interval the orchestral playing went several notches higher as Dominic Grier conducted the fine overture to Phèdre, Massenet in seven minutes invoking fate at the beginning and the end, with three marvellous tunes in the allegro. Zerlina was now Sophie, and Monika – Evlin Leiv (Estonia) showed a good stylish mezzo voice and an excellent dramatic sense. Werther/Changan Lim was adequate but somewhat lacking in charm and style (I came home and played Tito Schipa’s classic tenore di grazia rendition of the Ossian aria, Pourquoi me réveiller.) Daniele Rustioni conducted the orchestra, rousing it to passion.

With the scene from Manor came the star of the afternoon: this was Eri Nakamura (Japan), lovely voice, no wobbles, lovely singer and actress. Good conducting from Rory Macdonald (Scotland – the artists whose nationality I have not mentioned were all home-grown).

So you see, Covent Garden is looking to the future in preparing these young artists and it certainly did these singers proud by giving them everything possible in the way of orchestra, staging and teaching. The large audience gave up its Sunday afternoon and was rewarded with young talent and a good programme well performed.

12 – 17 October there will be Meet the Young Artists Week in the smaller Linbury Studio theatre. There will be a staged production The Truth about Love, an Orchestral Concert, Recital, A Juke Box session and other events. Further information from the Box Office 020 7304 4000; Most of the events are free.

Friday, July 10, 2009


When Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the new director of the Aldeburgh Festival was asked by a journalist what his reaction to the music of Benjamin Britten was, he answered “Neutral”. I ask you, does that bode good? Isn’t it rather like appointing as director of Bayreuth one who doesn’t much care for Wagner? Mind you, Aimard the pianist gave a superb performance of the Ravel Concerto for piano, left hand. And he did a fine interview with Elliott Carter.

Carter was present and warmly acclaimed – he is 101, the oldest composer around, a genial lovely guy. But his music is not very listener-friendly, not a melodic fragment within hearing distance, too cerebral ever since his excellent Cello Sonata and first String Quartet composed some sixty years ago. There was also an interesting film shown about him and his music; Boulez and Barenboim testified to his greatness; so I listened hard, but alas without even a soupçon of pleasure or comprehension. 15 works of his were played during the Festival (I was there June 12 – 23) and there was a similar number of works by Sir Harrison Birtwistle which meant that listeners who like a melodic fragment or two were disappointed. I remember Sir Harry saying on the radio once: “I’m not in the entertainment business”. True, he aint. But the audience applauded and it was great to have him there. The only piece I enjoyed was his orchestral work An Imaginary Landscape (1971), wild, exciting, with a few scraps of melody and accompanied by a hefty storm raging outside. But note the date; a fairly old work.

Talking around confirmed my view that what Aldeburgh audiences like best is congenial chamber music, classics, string quartets; they were thin on the ground this year. We had 4 Haydn Quartets, 2 of old Ludwig, and the Schubert Quintet but not a note of Mozart.

New works; from Sir Harry a mini-opera The Corridor, yet another Orpheus piece given in this new revamped Hoffmann building. Two singers, Elizabeth Atherton and Mark Padmore were the tragic lovers, a vivid portrayal of the moment when Orpheus takes that fatal backward glance. The six players sat in a line, representing the Shades; a new touch was that Eurydice talked/sang to them. As the first of a two part show Padmore sang 7 songs in Semper Dowland, semper dolens with six instrumentalists, slightly but lovingly tarted up by Sir Harry. The premieres of Elliott Carter were Fratribute, On Conversing with Paradise and Sistribute the latter a work for piano, played in an exciting recital by Croatian Tamara Stefanovich together with the Bartok Bagatelles, Haydn Sonata 46 and Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Really good playing. All Britten’s songs with piano were sung, the most brilliantly by tenor (Michelangelo) Allen Clayton who is surely going to be a big name.

18 works by Britten but no opera, no quartets, no concertos, no orchestral piece. Seems that Aldeburgh can spend millions on new buildings but not a few thousands on Britten. Shame!

Aimard directed a pleasantly whacky evening on June 13, called Collage –Montage. For the first time at Aldeburgh there were played single movements of larger works (remember the BBC’s Music in Miniature): Bartok and Beethoven quartets, Schubert and Stockhausen jumbled consecutively together, a Carter solo bassoon piece, a Bach violin fugue and bits of Kurtag’s Jatekok; Aimard, the Diotima String Quartet, and the Haffner Windquintet were on the stage all the time and gradually items overlapped, the evening ending with the whole lot playing together in an Ives-like mishmash of sound. Very entertaining.

Ravel shone in a memorable programme given by Anthony Marwood (violin), Steven Isserlis (cello) and Thomas Adès (piano) whose new piece Lieux retrouvés proved to be a sort of trio in four movements, music that made more sense and pleasure than his usual. Janacek’s Violin Sonata, & Fauré’s G minor Cello Sonata were topped off by a idiomatic and grand performance of Ravel’s masterly Piano Trio.

Finally, let me mention an enjoyable evening played by the Pears-Britten Orchestra. It was stimulating to see a band of young players enjoying themselves and delighting an audience. Their conductor was Antonello Manacorda, founder of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, quite a show-off but he certainly made the boys and girls play within an inch of their lives. Bach-Webern, Haydn 90, Bartok Divertimto and Mother Goose. So there was quite a lot to enjoy at Aldeburgh; and quite a lot, not to.

Carter and Aimard, photo by Malcolm Watson

Friday, July 03, 2009


Bellini not all Dreamy

When thinking of Norma most of us remember dreamy music, as in the aria Casta Diva, the nocturne-like spell supposed to have given Chopin the impetus for his set of pieces bearing that title (though he was not the first in the FIELD) But Norma is actually full of sturdy stuff right from the splendid overture and that silly march – how frequently does Bellini sound like early Verdi!

The performance at the Grange (I was present July 1) gave a good account of the opera with the English Chamber Orchestra in the pit well conducted by Stephen Barlow. Martin Constantine’s production was pleasantly straightforward although he could not resist the current fad of up-dating: electric light, what looked like Kalishnikovs, but why did the high Priestess of the Druids hang out in a kitchen? There was an impressive set which turned and turned again on a revolve as often as the crescent moon shone and disappeared.

But a good Norma depends on the triangle of principal singers; Norma herself, Pollione, the Roman pro-consul who is the father of her two boys – the biggest wimp in Opera? – and Adalgisa, Norma’s side-kick, for whom he has ditched Norma. These three were all dependable, accurate and en place, Claire Rutter in particular in the title-role. What all three lacked was any sense of magic, the X-factor that catches the heart. Charm was absent. Pollione was wooden (John Hudson) and Adalgise (Sara Fulgoni) seemed to force her tone to greater volume than was pleasing.

I tried, but failed, to forget Rosa Ponselle’s best-selling 78 of Casta Diva and the Covent Garden production with Callas, the equally remarkable Ebe Stignani and Jon Vickers – the only non-wimp Pollione I’ve seen. And later Joan Sutherland was pretty good. They all had that charisma that was lacking at the Grange.

Excellent chorus of Druids. This was the middle of the heatwave but it was a joy in the dinner interval to munch and quaff in the airy marquee with gorgeous trees and wheat fields only yards away. Then more of Bellini’s masterpiece. (Near) bliss!

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Cavalli in Hampshire

First performance in England (Grange Park Opera, June 6) of one of forty or so operas by Cavalli. Who he? Pier Francesco Cavalli 1602-76, probably a pupil of Monteverdi and certainly his successor as Master of the Music at St. Mark’s, Venice. Glyndebourne did his L’Ormindo and La Calisto in hepped-up versions by Raymond Leppard some time ago. This one, Eliogabalo was composed in 1668 but apparently not performed until 331 years later, in Italy. Should we all rush to see the second production? Perhaps.

And who was Heliogabalus? He was a Roman Emperor and extremely bad news; he didn’t fiddle while Rome burned but he was just as wicked while he lived; which was not long; he was murdered in AD222 at the age of just eighteen. The opera is a tangled web mainly concerning three couples, the tangling not unknotted because of gender-bending. Heli (for short) was written for a castrato but since docking is not popular now it was sung at Grange by a female soprano (Renata Pokupic), likewise his military opponent, Alessandro (Julia Riley). The plot sickens with Heli’s nanny Lenia, sung by the tenor Tom Walker (better legs than most nannies); and so it goes on, a regular la ronde of sexes, lovers, mistresses both carded and discarded.

Cavalli’s music is very much of its time, a time when operas were only just beginning to be more than plays with continuous music. If any action there be, it occurs in recitative; there follows sometimes an aria or an arioso, dwelling on the emotion set up in the recit.; love, hate, jealousy, aggression or what have you. There is some comedy aboard, a couple of good numbers on a recurring bass, occasionally a concerted number, rarely a chorus. Alas, Cavalli does not possess the divine spark that Monteverdi’s music has, it rumbles on agreeably but, as a navy man might say, there are not enough shots in his locker. There is a lot of monotony because the various gambits of melody and harmony are not varied enough. Mind you, most of the singing was good and so was the ‘authentic’ orchestra with some nice trumpets, sackbut’s in plenty, harpsichord, harp and those forebears of the double-bass, theorbos whose long necks protrude from the pit like periscopes. Christian Cumyn was the conductor keeping things lively and timely.

I think the voices were miked and the vocal level was formidable. Staging and lighting were highly professional. The director/designer David Fielding had opted for updating (to about 1980) and a jazzy approach. Thus we had a car and a motor-bike on stage, a lift, scenes in a washroom (very mod. Con.) and playboy bunnies rabitting about. Good legs seemed as much a pre-requisite as a good voice.

A good section of the audience (full house) seemed well pleased with the whizzy-dizzy show but some of us were starved of memorable music. Heli was the second offering this season of Grange Park Opera (nr. Winchester) whose season opened with Norma and will continue until August with Flying Dutchman, The Cunning little Vixen and Rigoletto. The venue is a partly crumbling Palladian-type mansion set in glorious Hampshire countryside. Mérite un détour.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


There was booing at the close of Covent Garden’s latest new production Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, provoked by a staging that was a no-no, no furniture, no décor but screens, and a singer in the title-role without projection, charm or lustre; and a cast not permitted to make gestures. The singing however was spot-on and the orchestral playing, under music director, Antonio Pappano, was very fine.

The producer/director (I was there for the first of the run, June 4) was Christof Loy who writes in the programme book: “…my recent productions have been increasingly minimalist, aesthetically and gesturally.” Ouch!

But the orchestra in Lulu is gestural in the extreme, like a sea of seething emotions, sensual, some would say erotic. Yet the performers on stage were hamstrung, with no furniture, no props, and no gestures. The three male corpses were not allowed to stay dead; after some minutes they got up and walked off the stage! And the protagonist, Lulu herself, was miscast. No doubt the music staff checked on her voice, that she was capable of coping with Berg’s demands, her music covers a big range from bottom C to the stratosphere. Fine. The Swedish soprano, Agneta Eichenholz, was up to the mark in this respect. But did the staff find out if she could portray this femme fatale – she is too mature to be called a sex kitten, she is more like a sex cat – and could she convince us that she was so wildly attractive to men that they would die in the attempt to possess her? I think not. Without these qualities Lulu can even become boring, especially if drably dressed in a production that lacked suitable realism.

So we had a situation in which the singing and playing was outstanding but the behaviour on stage thoroughly unconvincing.

Within these limits the cast did its best, in particular Klaus Florian Vogt as Alwa, Michael Volle as his father Dr. Schön, and Jennifer Larmore, the faithful lesbian Grafin Geschwitz (now she was sexy all right!)

Poor Alban Berg; he died in 1935 at the age of fifty as the result of a sting (where the bee sucked, there died Berg). He had completed the vocal score of the final act but not orchestrated it. Friedrich Cerha finished it off. What Berg did complete was an orchestral suite in six movements which personally I find more satisfactory than the opera itself. And I have a hunch (unconfirmed) that Berg composed first the accompaniment, the orchestral part of the opera and then added the vocal parts. Because the balance is often faulty, the voices often muddy, the texture preventing the music from projecting its full emotional force, with its slithering strings, sexy saxophone, trenchant piano chords and sensual harmonies.

Also, the plot is difficult to follow on stage, these are so many characters, some without sufficient dramatic substance. And the third act is too long. (Isn’t Berg’s first opera, Wozzeck, superior, a true masterpiece, convincing in a way that Lulu is not, despite its many gorgeous moments of iridescent, orchestral, marvels?)

What a shame that the careful and loving vocal and orchestral preparation of Berg’s final work was let down by a wilful and surely wrong-headed stage director!


Donizetti had obsessions. Including one with the United Kingdom? Beside Roberto Devereux, which opened the Holland Park Opera season in London on June 2 (I was there), he composed Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth, Lucia di Lammermoor, Maria Stuarda and Emilia di Liverpool (which opens, you may remember ‘among the mountains near Liverpool’) not forgetting Rosamunda d’Inghilterra; that is; six Brit venues out of his seventy or so operas. Roberto was composed in 1837 when its composer was forty years of age, with another eleven years of life to go in his sad life and unique death (which I’ll come to later). The venue of the première was the San Carlo in Naples and Donizetti wrote to his publisher; “it is not for me to tell you now how it went. I am more modest than a whore: therefore I should blush. But it went very, very well. (They also called out the poet).” Ronzi di Begnis who played the part of Queen Elizabeth had a great success; and so did Majella Cullagh, the Irish soprano, at Holland Park. In fact, she triumphed. An impressive stage presence, she sang superbly, coping with the wide range and florid coloratura, her emotions and tones covering the gamut from tender to ferocious. Donizetti repaid her by giving her the best music, particularly the duets with Roberto of the title-role, a fluent and most capable tenor (the programme’s biography lists venues and appointments but, as so often, fails to tell us nationality). Yvonne Howard gave a good account, vocally and histrionically, of Sara, Duchessa di Nottingham, who is Roberto’s love (this opera grants Roberto no wife, as he had in reality). The music for the duets of Sara and Roberto are not nearly of such good quality as those of Roberto and the Queen.

There is banality sometimes in the music but the arias are good and the finale of act two is wonderful music, chorus included; once or twice Donizetti lets rip in a thrilling and passionate way. Richard Bonynge (mispelt in the programme) conducted a tidy performance that showed love and respect for the score. There are some interesting bits of scoring; woodwind introductions, dramatic use of trombone and side-drum. Our national anthem is briefly quoted in the prelude – but nobody stood up.

The season at Holland Park goes on until mid-August and the operas to be performed are: Hansel and Gretel, La Bohème, Orpheus in the Underworld, Un Ballo in Maschera and Kát’a Kabanová.

Lindsay Posner’s direction was free of ‘concept’ and tricks, thoroughly circumspect, frankly on the dull side. Adam Cooper was named as chorographer but was little in evidence. Costumes satisfactory.

It was a most enjoyable evening and the audience, graced by the presence of the conductor’s wife, Dame Joan Sutherland, responded with generous applause.

Donizetti’s death: apparently the composer was something of a sexual athlete – preferring trios to the more conventional duos; in his final mental and physical decline he indulged in onanism to such a degree that he died as a result. He might be said to have died by his own hand.

Dame Joan Sutherland and Holand Park Directors

Friday, May 01, 2009


In case you live anywhere near Basingstoke and haven’t yet visited the Anvil Concert Hall (opened 1994) let me wave a flag for it. First –class acoustic, comfortable, accessible (car-park handy), nice walk-about, helpful bars, interesting programmes and events, 1350 seats. Basic shoe-box shape but no right angles behind platform (Rudolf Steiner would have approved).

On April 3 I heard a concert given by the Philharmonia Orchestra (regular visitor) conducted by Lorin Maazel, the most fascinating director to watch because his technique must be the surest in the world. He is not always the most enjoyable to hear because sometimes he can pull the music about. I find his rehearsals more rewarding than his concerts, there being no audience to watch him.

On this Hampshire visit, however, Maazel did not play to the gallery and his performance of the main work of the evening, Sibelius Symphony no. 2, was exemplary, every detail cared for, but never at the expense of the trajectory of the music as a whole; amazing to be able to follow a cogent argument in sound, the material laid before our ears, fragments at first which gradually build into an aural and intellectual edifice. The tonal juxtapositions and subsequent resolutions that Sibelius composed are deeply satisfying to heart and mind.

Do you, listener, sometimes wish that the finale’s grand tune would come back a third time? But no doubt there are cogent reasons why Sibelius ended the work the way he did; granite-faced old Finn, he knew what he was doing. And so did Maazel and the orchestra; it was superb.

The evening had begun with Fauré’s touching, tender and apposite incidental music for Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas and Mélisande. After which we were regaled with an example of Lorin Maazel’s third occupation. For he began his career as a child prodigy violinist and nowadays his compositions figure in his programmes. Skuttlebutt has it that he paid Covent Garden a quarter-of-a-million pounds to put on his Orwell Opera 1984 which nobody seemed to enjoy. Perhaps he has a deal with the Philharmonia. At any rate at Basingstoke we had to listen for half-an-hour to his Music for Violoncello and Orchestra. On the positive side this was a good show piece for the orchestra which all departments played consummate skill. The work is not discordant all the time but it seems contrived by a clever mind with no heart. The composer writes that a subtitle could be dreamscape. Hm! My subtitle might echo the title of an old musical: One Damn Thing After Another (ODTAA). The cellist Han-na Chang was faultless, coping with difficulty Maazel had thrown in her way; but for quite long periods her cello was silent while trumpets screamed, strings sounded air-raid warnings, tom-toms tom-tommed, a lady rushed about the platform playing a harpsichord and other keyboard instruments, although we could not hear the sounds she mad, anymore than we could hear a player fingering an accordion.

Now in the Thirties and earlier, an audience might have walked out or made rude noises when music like this was performed but today audiences are more polite (frightened?). At any rate Maazel and his cellist were regaled with applause.

Could your reviewer be wrong? He is mindful of the fact that when Fauré’s gentle and perfectly proportioned Pelléas music was first performed in London (Sarah Bernhardt played Mélisande) the Times reviewer wrote that “its continued absence of tangible form, not to speak of it’s actual ugliness” etc. So, you see times and Times can change.

--- John Amis

Friday, April 17, 2009


If that great expert on Handel’s operas, Winton Dean, took three large pages to explain the plot of the Master’s 1726 Alessandro, your scribe hasn’t a hope in hell of reducing it to a paragraph. Presumably Handel chose the story because it contained juicy parts for the two prima donne in the cast, the one long in his company, Cuzzoni, the one he famously threatened to defenestrate if she didn’t mind her ps and qs and the latest Italian import, Faustina Bordoni.

Things were not exactly made clearer by the stage director, William Relton, who updated the action to Oxford in the twenties, dreaming spires but with a touch of blackshirt thuggery from the thirties. The problem of course with Handel operas is the almost complete lack of ensembles and the plethora of arias in that old ABA form. If you don’t do something with them, yawning can set in; and if you spice it up too much, you risk damage to Handel’s beautiful music.

The beginning was not too promising with Alex (for short, kissing Clito in the overture.) And then the first numbers took place in: a) rugger scrums, b) a tea party, c) a sconcing and d) a lavatory. My sense of propriety at this point diminished because the staging was so brilliant, even though, as usual when you start juggling with centuries, the mores, manners and class distinctions go to pot. Once one realised that the producer’s motto was ‘anything goes’ things developed towards the end into a ‘top hat, white tie and tails’ number, one could than relax and let one’s blood pressure alone.

It was all great fun; the singers had good voices and could cope with the coloratura bravura runs, roulades and other vocal devices that Handel composed as well as the wonderful lyrical tunes. Countertenors that sounded musical and the two ladies were excellent. Slim Susanna Hurrell (Roxana) could roll about on the floor and still sing perfectly, and give an exposition of happiness; Sarah-Jane Brandon (Lisaura), more spacious in looks, was wonderfully expressive. Christopher Lowery (Alessandro) had a daffy look but a great commend of his florid countertenor music. James Oldfield (Clito) sounded a beautiful bass voice. But there were also stars in the pit: Laurence Cummings directed the London Handel Orchestra, period instruments of course, purity down below if not up above.

There is probably a halfway house between this foolery and purist straight stuff but until someone with taste, respect and imagination comes along with a better solution this hit-and-miss kind of production will have to do. This one certainly worked, ‘up to a point, Lord Copper.’

- John Amis


It seems that anything composed by Richard Wagner will draw applauding crowds these days. The Ring is always sold out and just now all performances of the first opera he composed, at the age of twenty, are drawing full houses in a Paris run at that lovely Chatelets theatre. I saw the second performance of Die Feen on March 29.

Wagner, as always wrote his own libretto, taking a story by Carlo Gozzi, a tale about fairies and mortals. Arindal as loved by a fairy, Ada, who has him under a spell. Ada wants to hand in her fairy cards and marry a mortal, a tenor natch. To this end, he has to perform some fiendish tasks and suffer some even more fiendish torments from her. Meanwhile back at the ranch his sister Lora is defending Arindal’s kingdom which is going to ruin. It takes 3 long acts before a happy ending is reached; even with cuts Die Feen lasts three hours.

Now Wagner in his prime can last longer than that but by that time he could beguile you, bedevil you with leading motives, orchestral splendour and even occasionally enchant you with melody. But not at the age of twenty. Mainly he serves up the sort of music he was conducting at that period of his life ‘like Weber not under pressure’ Ernest Newman wrote. There are not many memorable moments in Die Feen although the fledging composer was capable of writing a score, suitably planned, but with more than a share of mauvais quarts d’heures.

What made the performance tolerable was the production and much of singing and playing. The Spanish director Emilio Sagi applies imagination, finesse and charm to the staging, décor and costumes to match by Daniel Blanco and Jésus Ruiz. Ada appears in one scene from a vast rose, another scene has a twenty-five feet high chandelier that must have sent the budget sky-high. Sometimes things get rather camp with male bare-chested fairies wearing diaphanous skirts. There are plenty of girls though and the performance begins and ends in swirling pink. Why the hero Arindal spends two acts in a green frock is not explained. Never mind, it was all good fun and helped to pass the time.

The performance of the evening was by the German singer, Christiana Liber with a voice that was strong, pure, bang in the middle of the note and full of drama. Her mortal lover, Arindal was the American tenor William Joyner, extremely competent but no charm or presence. His sister, Lora, was the Georgina-American Lina Tetruashvili whom we commended at Wexford last Halloween as Miss Bad Girl in Snow Maiden. She’s Miss Good Girl in this and a first rate performer to cherish. Ensemble, chorus and orchestra excellent under Marc-Minkowski, a name we know here from CD’s, good to enjoy his work in the flesh.

Signs and portents? Yes, a phrase here and a modulation there, very occasionally; but on the whole, the music of the future was in the future. But in the story line there were also some familiars; forbidden enquiry, a fairy garden, magic weapons, a touch of redemption and a final transfiguration, all of these were to ring a bell.

I hope that Die Feen (The Fairies) will be performed on rare occasions in future. My motto is; let sleeping fairies lie.

- John Amis

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Busy Russian at the helm

Asked whether she preferred drama on radio or television, the lady opted for radio. Why? “Because the scenery is better.” Which has a sort of bearing on the question whether opera is better in the opera house or the concert hall. When you consider the disease that besets the majority of opera productions these days when ‘concept productions’ are so prevalent, and when ignorant and unmusical producers are so keen to put their egotistic stamp on their efforts, we can be thankful for concert performances of opera that allow the listener to hear the music and imagine the action.

Of course, a good production is the better of the two options: one that has respect for the opera, one that shows imagination in tune with the work. These thoughts came to mind attending on March 12 a performance of the third act of Parsifal. The London Symphony Orchestra was directed by that busy Russian, Valery Gergiev, the Dapertutto of the conducting world. He is not renowned for his direction of Wagner but although I have heard more inspiring performances this was a clear one, impassioned and technically secure, the players straining at the leash to give of their best. There was a fine sonority to be heard, the strings giving a luxurious sheen to their sound was they bore down on their G Saite (G strings).

The singing of Amfortas and Gurnemanz could scarcely have been bettered: the Russian baritone Evgeny Nikitin tugged at our heartstrings and the Dutchman Robert Holl was a superb Gurnemanz, sympathetic and with a voice as huge as a battleship. The single line that Wagner allotted to Kundry in this act was sung by a member of the LS Chorus. Chorus excellent.

Curious how Debussy and Nietzsche both doted on Wagner, then reneged and became as anti-Wagner as Stravinsky was all the time.

The Parsifal, Russian Sergey Semishkov lacked a true Heldentenor ring but sang his part intelligently (he looked curiously like photographs of an unsmiling Francis Bacon); figuratively I thought of his entrance, immersed in black armour, complete with vizier – as a sort of holy Ned Kelly. I also remembered Ernest Newman quoting Wagner’s comment on contemporary criticism that the text was blasphemous: “the idea of Christ being a tenor … phew!”

Friday, March 20, 2009


The capital of Victoria has a new music room, a large recital room seating a thousand, no proscenium, just a stage abutting the first row of the audience. All wood: walls, ceiling, floor, even the chair backs. The walls seem to flow, with a two inch indentation looking somewhat like diagrams of ocean charts. A leaflet tells us what to savour – a big bass response. True, a bit too big, supporting horns come at us overbearing. Our old friend Bill Lyne, who ran London’s Wigmore Hall for so long with good taste and success, is quoted as saying; The Elizabeth Murdoch Hall will inspire artists to give their best. Who is Elizabeth Murdoch? the mother of Rupert (but) a much loved lady in these parts, the opening of her hall coincided with her 100th birthday in late January.

In passing: although many are convinced that wood produces the best acoustic, note that our perfect chamber music venue in London, the Wigmore Hall, is not all wood but mostly plaster, combined with wood and marble. My ears tell me that this new Melbourne Hall needs quite a bit of tweeting before it meets the claims made for it. The sound is resonant to the point of crudity, almost bathroom, that is from the circle and from the back stalls, where I sat for two concerts. Only from the third row of the stalls, where I sat for the third concert, did I get a good sound, where the sound flowed naturally. Not only was the bass response too loud but also there seemed to be a favoured octave: A above middle C upwards to top A in the treble clef. Sometimes string sound disappeared.

The programmes that I went to, February 6 -13 were mixed, sometimes orchestral first half, chamber music after the interval. First night we had the Vaughan Williams Serenade to Music but the beautiful score did not jell in performance, despite good singing from local soloists (though the “Elsie Suddaby” soprano fluffed her two climactic top notes). And the final scene of Don Giovanni was not properly coherent and in the Trout Quintet Schubert’s winning music winningly played by Piers Lane with the Goldner Quartet, the string sound often faded away. Another evening the excellent no-vibrato-period-instrumented-Brandenburg Orchestra in toothsome Mozart movements (the slow ones from the Clarinet Concerto and the Elvira Madigan C Major Piano Concerto K. 467) there were the same deficiencies. Only the crystal clear stratospheric Queen of the Night was satisfactory, wonderfully sung by American soprano, Cynthia Siedel (look out for her, she’s the tops). Sitting close to the stage came enchantment in sound and performance: Gidon Kremer and his Baltic Ensemble in a programme called After Bach Adagio and Fugue/Mozart followed by the Bach Chaconne.

At 62 Kremer is still the mature master; knees bent, rather horse-faced (handsome horse mind you) and no kow-towing, he is superior in many respects to the amazing Kennedy, Mutter, Perlman and the gorgeous young girlies. Gubaidolina’s Improvisations on a Bach motive for string quartet were diverting and so were some choice Piazolla numbers. Three of Bach’s Inventions were magically played on a vibraphone by Istvan Petenko. The encore, played by all hands, ragged Eleanor Rigby to rousing effect.

So …. if in Melbourne’s new recital room, try and sit almost on the performers’ laps, or else wait for further tweetings.

Coda: I also attended one late night recital in the adjacent small Salon, a programme given by superb flautist Geoffrey Collins with old friend Roger Woodward, still in the fine fettle, piano bashing as is his wont and as required too often by avant garde composers. No doubt the performers were scrupulously accurate in works by Ann Boyd, Takemitsu and Richard Meale. Not my tasse de thé, to my ears more like stale ship’s biscuits; and really! fluting into the strings of the piano, isn’t that old hat by now?

Audiences: none of these events was more than two-thirds full.


Sonya Orchard, Harper-Collins

The Virtuoso is a remarkable book by a young Australian musician turned novelist – rave reviews before and since the launch last month in Melbourne and Sydney. The unusual format is a sort of biography within a fiction, about a young boy student who falls in love with Noël Mewton-Wood a gifted Melbourner who debuted with Beecham, had a good career, made over a dozen first-class records of concertos, played at Proms, Wigmore Hall and Aldeburgh, great friend of Tippett, Britten and was part of the London Musical scene. He was a depressive and tragically, committed suicide in 1953, aged only 31. The author’s name is Sonia Orchard and she lives in Melbourne with her husband James and their two baby daughters.

Why did Noël commit suicide? His lover-partner, Bill, non-musician, sometime British Council rep in Germany, died of a ruptured appendix and Noël felt guilty. Also he considered, mistakenly, that his career was in decline. He was a remarkable musician with a sure technique, rather in the Clifford Curzon mould, although with more leanings towards contemporary music. Lately critics have praised the recent two-set Decca CDs of his recordings of concertos; Beethoven 4, Tchaikovsky 2, the Shostakovich with trumpet, and Schumann’s solo Kinderszenen, etc. Later this year his complete oeuvre will be issued by Decca, including Tchaikovsky 1, Chopin1, Bliss etc. The slow movement of the Chopin is the best version I know and the Bliss equals Solomon’s. Noël was at his best in the recording studio. He recorded the Busoni on EMI with Beecham conducting. It was with Beecham that he made his debut in London and the old conductor conceded at rehearsal that Noël was right when the cherubic seventeen year old corrected him; “out of the mouths of babes and sucklings” he responded.

The novel story is told by an I, a young male student pianist in love with Noël who has an affair with him. Orchard writes graphically, flowingly, poetically at times and evokes quite remarkably the London musical scene. She tells a good yarn, making many interesting musical points on the way. I think, in fact I am sure, that even those who don’t know his name, will find it a book to cherish and perhaps shed a few tears over. None more than myself to whom Noël left his concert grand piano. The night before he took cyanide he talked to me for an hour on the telephone with not a word about dying.

A link to an Australian site selling the book,


A quarter of a century ago the Sultan of Oman decreed a visit to his capital Muscat of the London Symphony Orchestra; I went as a scribe and hanger-on. Especially for the visit he had also decreed that a large hotel be built with a concert hall in the middle of it. And lo! It came to pass, Al Bustan Hotel, nestling between limestone crags that look naked because there is no soil, therefore no trees so that they look almost unreal, like fibre glass. The LSO was somewhat apprehensive about the visit as it feared that in Arabia there might be liquid but without alcohol in it. But when we arrived off our flight at four in the morning we were greeted in the hotel atrium with the sounds of the harp, the splashing of fountains and the popping of champagne corks. Moreover when the lads and lasses retired to their rooms, they found a bottle of Johnny Walker beside each bed. The week was to be more enjoyable than anticipated! The atrium, by the way, is 115 feet high, the dome hoisting huge chandeliers, the whole hotel de luxe, the cuisine likewise.

The Concert Hall was well designed, spacious, an 800-seater, well upholstered, main colour dark plum with goodish acoustics that have been improved subsequently. The conductor was the former LSO leader, John Georgiadis and before the first of the two concerts he was instructed to stand to await the arrival of the Sultan. He stood for some forty-five minutes. Before the second concert he sat down on a chair to await the equally late arrival of the monarch. The Sultan was not best pleased with the apparent incivility. The Sultan has ruled the state absolutely since 1970. And successfully, his subjects respect him. To quote only one statistic, in 1970 there were three schools in Oman, now there are over a thousand. And by law, buildings have to have national characteristics, such as crenellations, they are mostly white and do not scrape the sky, having a slightly toytown appearance, pleasing.

The Sultan was pleased with the LSO visit but had sensibly decided that Oman must have its own orchestra. So some thirty or so boys were selected to form an orchestra in the future, now called the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra. Instruments to the tune of a quarter of a million pounds were ordered from Boosey and Hawkes, tutors engaged, mostly from the U.K.

So I was keen to hear the result 25 years later; to find what progress had been made. The first thing I noticed was that quite a few of the boys were by now bald. Also that there was nearly a score of girls in the band, looking in their uniforms of headdresses, shawls and draperies of red with green tunics, the colours of the Omani flag, like so many Red Riding Hoods. The programme of the concert I attended on March 2 was quite demanding: the prelude to Verdi’s Nabucco, a suite of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, not the usual one we hear for strings only but one with full orchestra and harpsichord, and the First Symphony of Sibelius. The conductor was Simon Wright, brother of that Wright who Rogers BBC music and the Proms. He obviously commands the respect of the orchestra and it played proficiently for him, with great enthusiasm; the first tutti in the Verdi nearly knocked the audience out of its plush seats. The first oboe and the bassoons were first class, the strings occasionally dodgy but this was a real orchestra and will improve if it continues to have good visiting conductors, who get on well with the players. Sir Colin Davis was here a little time ago but sadly did not hit it off too well with the band, so that a repeat of his concert in London’s Barbican on March 5 was scrubbed.

I cannot pretend that this orchestra is of international standard yet but I can say that the concert I went to was a pleasurable experience that I would willingly repeat. Simon Wright, conductor of the Leeds Choral Society for many years, did an excellent job; maybe his brother should give him a London concert.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Prokofiev: A life of Music

Wednesday 18 March 2009
Prokofiev: A life of Music

John Amis and Tait Memorial Trust Awardees

John Amis together with Mary Jean O’Doherty, James Homann, Amir Farid and Claire Howard present an evening on Prokofiev. Works to include Diabolique Opus 4, Toccata Opus 11, War and Peace arias, The Love of 3 Oranges and Songs Without Words. Tickets £23

7 for 7.30pm in Chelsea, London

For tickets and full details please visit or email


Interest in Korngold grows apace. His superb film scores (2 Oscars) have made people keen about Erich Wolfgang, 1897 – 1957. His middle name was lived up to, for he was one of the most precocious composers ever. He had a triumphant childhood, adolescence and young manhood in Vienna but was hounded out of Germany and Austria by the Nazis, moved to America where he became a star cinema composer in Hollywood. Mahler, Strauss, Furtwängler, Šibelius and Puccini proclaimed his exceptional qualities, he had a ballet produced at the Vienna Opera when he was still in short pants, Schnabel played a Piano Sonata K had composed when he was thirteen, he was made a professor at the Vienna State Academy and his operas were performed all over the German speaking countries and beyond. In 1920 Die Tote Stadt was premiered simultaneously in Cologne and Hamburg, in Vienna a month later. It was about time that Covent Garden let us see and hear that opera and the British première arrived on January 27.

I prepared for that premiere by listening three times to a CD of the work and I confess to being underwhelmed. The music is, to my taste, unfocused, brilliantly written for the orchestra but altogether too loud too much of the time and with vocal writing that keeps the singers straining at the top of their range, Korngold continually makes Straussian gestures but they lack the melodic potency of the older master and they do not show the same love that Strauss had for the human voice. But on the stage, in an exceptionally fine production, the story is told with the stage know-how of a master.

The story is very much of its time, a time when Europe was still lamenting the mass killing of millions of men so that remembrance of the dead was in many people’s mind (Conan Doyle and all that cult). Die Tote Stadt is about Paul still grieving obsessively for his wife Marie, conserving her memory with portraits of her, even a plaid of her hair. One day, however in the dead city of Bruges (get the connection?) he sees a (dead) ringer of that wife. She is called Marietta, a dancer who might perhaps be cast as Odile; is she immoral because she wants to enslave every man or is she a child of nature? Paul’s grief gives way to infatuation. Paul’s best friend is Frank but he becomes a rival, for he seems also to be having it off with Marietta, she casting sexual favours to all-comers, including a certain Count/Pierrot of a harlequinade (shades of Ariadne auf Naxos). Paul alternates between having his cake and going hungry with grief. All this with the back ground of Bruges and it’s religious processions. Eventually Marietta goes too far in taunting Paul and desecrating the shrine he has created, he strangles her with Marie’s plaid of hair. All a bit sick really. And no catharsis in the music when the whole thing turns out to be a dream. Frank and Paul are friends again and plan to leave the dead city. And Marietta pops in to collect her brolly and some roses she left behind. Quiet ending.

The evening was a triumph of artistry. The production by Willy Decker (from Salzburg and Vienna) was perfect, completely non-concept, entirely at the service of and with respect for the work, imaginative and mind-blowing, totally satisfying, a great evening in the opera-house. Equally commendable was the singing and acting all round. It is Paul’s show and the American tenor, Stephen Gould, was a star, coping with the high tessitura and its jagged line, also living the part. As did also the German singer, Nadja Michael as an utterly convincing Marietta (occasionally doubling as the shade of Marie), delighting in the 1920 costumes and revealing a personality and allure that was captivating. The only quality that would have lifted enjoyment even higher would have been the sort of vocal charisma that earlier singers had, like Maria Jeritza and Richard Tauber in the Twenties. Crowning the evening was the debut in the Royal Opera House of the conductor Ingo Metzmacher; no praise is too high for his handling of the score and our orchestra.

The story was originally a novel called Bruges-la-morte by Georges Rodenbach and the opera libretto was by the composer himself, with the helping hand – only revealed in 1975 – of his father, Julius who, as a feared Viennese music critic, sensibly wished to remain anonymous, fearing that his reputation might harm his son’s. When Die Tote Stadt had its premiere Korngold was twenty three years of age.

Max Reinhardt got Korngold to Hollywood to write extra music for his film ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (Mickey Rooney the best Puck ever) and the composer was able to stay on. The Sea Hawk, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and Robin Hood (Errol Flynn at his best) brought forth wonderful scores from Korngold. He also produced concert works; in 1945 the luscious, high sugar content Violin Concerto (Heifetz’ recording is tops) and the 1951 Symphony in F sharp minor, which I consider a great work, worthy to be spoken of as a successor to Mahler’s Tenth.