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.