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.