Friday, December 31, 2010

ALL OR NOTHING

Aimez-vous Prokofiev?

Reader, do you find nowadays that some folk like everything that the famous composers write, a blanket hurrah for every opus? This saves discriminating or making judgement but it commits the listener to applauding every contrapuntal bar of old J.S.B., every minuet, ecclesiastic cliché and chunk of dinner fodder that Mozart penned, every battle symphony and occasional cantatas of the Man from Bonn and every sixteen-verse song and tedious finale of Schubert. Fast forward a century or two to consider the vast output of Sergei Prokofiev: Masterpieces galore, lyrical treasures and electric wonders, yes, but also melody-free grim numbers like the Fiery Angel, boring operas and ballets like Semyon Kotko, The Gambler, Betrothal and the Stone Flower, symphonies 2 and 3, comissarselicking cantatas, desiccated stuff where the composer is writing as if suffering from compositional constipation or trying to please his peers who were only too willing to strangle new works at birth, labelling them undanceable, unplayable or 'formalist'.

Of course it is the masterpieces that we remember but the works in the B list get a hearing now and then. On December 17 in the Festival Hall it was the E flat minor Symphony No. 6 that was featured in a BBC concert, excellently played by its S.O. under the persuasive baton of its music director, Jiri Beholavek. This piece received praises in the Soviet until the commissars thumbed it down. Too often it sounds like a badly carved jigsaw, scraps of Romeo & Juliet, the Symphony No. 5, even a cadence from Parsifal, all beautifully and typically orchestrated with the bass entrusted to the tuba and tinkles from harp and celesta. It also has a cheeky finale tune, thumping percussion and an inconclusive ending. Were the comissars right, for once? (As maybe they were earlier when they so brutally humiliated Shostakovich – but wasn't his music getting too brittle, too outlandish in its modernistic gestures?) Brutal, yes, but subsequentently his music was better focused.

What supreme irony it was that Prokofiev died the same day as Stalin – the Master and the Monster!

Before the symphony the world premiere was given of an Oboe Concerto by the French composer Marc-André Dalbavie (b. 1961) played by a Russian virtuoso, Alaxei Ogrintchouk. The concerto – vaguely tonal – begins and proceeds oboeistically with quick runs and roulades, passages of volatility as slippery as a bucket of eels, punctuated occasionally by angular groupings of orchestral support. One waited in vain for some solid musical treatment but the eels prevailed until the end some twenty minutes later. The soloist showed great stamina, like a well-trained athlete, even though he did give mighty gasps at the end of some bouts of semi-quavers. The conductor had to work hard too, but he was up to the task. They finished together! The composer was present to acknowledge the applause and thank Ogrintchouk, for whom the work was written.

TANNHÄUSER

A Tenor Chairman

Wagner tinkered with Tannhäuser after its premiere in 1845, making a new version in 1861 with subsequent emendations as late as 1875. He was 32 at the time of the Dresden first performance with The Flying Dutchman behind him. By the time of the Paris production he was older by sixteen years plus the composing of Tristan. By this time his style had changed: the overture melds into the new Venusberg music and the difference is almost as big as if a postage stamp had been stuck on top of the Mona Lisa. Its not an opera all of a piece anymore but few listeners would want to forego the wonderful Venusberg episode, a wonderful orgy of sensual music.

But what do you do on the stage? Covent Garden (15 December) plonks a forty-foot table/bed and a corps de ballet weaving and moving sensually, most effectively. Short of actual copulation this was a good solution, an atheletic free-for-all with some movements inspired perhaps by McGregor’s ballet Chroma where extensions of normal body fluctuations seem almost rubberized. With the orchestra going full tilt this was very effective.

From the very start Semyon Bychkov’s conducting was startlingly good, thrilling, thoroughly Wagnerian; he is no speedy Gonzalez; the longueurs towards the end of Act Two and the beginning of the last act still make one wish that Wagner had even more thoroughly rewritten. But the performance as a whole was deeply impressive from the musical point of view.

The production by Tim Albery left much to be desired as if Costcutters had been at work: curtains uninterruptus, no hall for the song contest, no scenery to speak of. The one exception was a duplicate (and probably vastly expensive) replica of the Garden’s proscenium and curtain appeared set some twenty feet behind the real thing. Why? Another feature was chairs. Half-a-dozen in the Venusburg scene and thereafter there were always chairs. Why? And the answer dawned on one. Johann Botha is an XL tenor and so the production was geared so that he could sit down as frequently as possible. Likewise his costume disguised his girth, a long overcoat most of the evening. His voice is rarely lovely but he does sing the notes fairly if squarely; his acting is humdrum. Venus was more than adequately sung by Michaela Schuster – last seen poisoning Adrianna Levouvreur – but here slinking gracefully in black. Elisabeth (Eva-Maria Westbrook) was note perfect but her voice was far from steady. As often happens, it was the lower male voices that provided the most satisfactory singing of the evening: Christof Fischesser as the Landgrave and Christian Gerhaer as Wolfram. Chorus lusty but not very beautiful.

But it was Bychkov’s evening – and Wagner’s.

GOLDEN OLDIE PIANIST

Since Shura Cherkassky frisked about the keyboard in his eighties we are used to golden oldies and we hear that Methusaleh has booked the Wigmore early next year. Meanwhile we heard Nelly Akopian-Tamarina in the hall giving a recital of Schumann, December 9. With that ‘ian’ in her name there must be some Armenian blood. Her teacher Goldenweiser, who died in 1961, was famous for his fidelity to the text but Nelly was not. I think Schumann would have recognised the passion and imagination in her playing but he might have raised his eyebrows at the liberties she took with his text: rubatissimo scarcely describes her playing of the Arabaske. Every phrase seemed to have some elongation which made the sugar count rise alarmingly. In Kreisleriana and Davidbündlertänze she pulled the text about, leaving out notes, adding some, pausing lengthily. But as the evening went on one succumbed to the poetry she created. She did not lack virility, sometimes her fingers seemed made of steel but at other times she could play a line so quietly it seemed she could not sustain it to the end, but she always did, absolutely exquisitely.

After the David dances sank down to its close there was a ten second silence which spoke of the rapt attention her playing created. This was playing of a sort that one thought had disappeared forever. What a wealth of poetry and passion there is in the piano music of Schumann; surely it looks forward to the symphonies of Mahler with its reflections of life and its intimation of mortality; utterly different but pointing in the same direction.

THE NELSONS TOUCH

A Hero’s Baton

The programme of the Philharmonia’s concert in the Festival Hall, December 9, looked as if it was put together by a committee. One member wanted Strauss’ ego-trip, Ein Heldenleben, another insisted on the Leonora 3 overture whilst a third pointed out that the great trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger was available, why not get him to play the Haydn Concerto? So .... at the end of the concert were there any complaints?

No, siree, because on the podium was Andris Nelsons, the brilliant young Latvian who is being such a success with the Birmingham Orchestra. His Heldenleban did not eclipse memories of Mengelberg’s superb 1930 recording or Beecham’s performances in London but it was nevertheless a very fine one, full-blooded, thrilling. Critics in the past have been rather snooty about the tone-poem “I say, the fellow is wallowing in self-indulgences”. Well who cares? It has a convincing shape, wonderful tunes, a marvellous musical solo violin portrait of Pauline, Mrs. Strauss as skittish, amorous, a bit perverse, the echt ewige weibliche: it has that rousing battle, followed by that gorgeous urging, surging tune, not to mention a cohort of eight horns (nine with the bumper-up) going ever upward, and then there is that heartfelt code (with a nod towards the Bruch Fiddle concerto) – yes, self-indulgent, but a feast for the ear. Nelsons had a ball, enjoying every moment, crouching, beckoning, jumping, even standing back for a moment as the strings swooped towards heaven or sank down on their G Saiten (G strings). Some think that a conductor should not be seen to emote but who in the audience wants to see the chap on the podium standing stock still while a hundred players in front of him are bowing, blowing and bashing their hearts out?

Hardenberger proved his greatness in the Haydn: liquid tone (something between George Eskale’s cornet sound and Ernest Hall or his pupil. Malcolm Arnold’s true trumpet timbre) and the utmost virtuosity. He threw in an encore: H.K. Gruber’s little concertino, a piece where the beat is continually displaced by syncopation. The composer was there to hear his piece which sounded to me like a corny Thirties Berlin jazz band.

Leonora was beautifully played, dramatic and colourful but also clear in form and exciting. If the committee can produce another programme like this with the Philharmonia on top form with a conductor to match, I’ll be there!

ENGLISH CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

It was born the Goldsborough Orchestra in 1948 and re-christened the English Chamber Orchestra in 1960; the finest hours of its distinguished existence were the first two decades when it was practically the house orchestra of the Aldeburgh Festival, playing often with Benjamin Britten as conductor. In those early days Raymond Leppard did memorable work with the orchestra concert at on what Hardy used to call ‘the ancient stave’ but he followed his love to America, taking his fireplace and his talent with him. The good news is that he is returning to conduct the orchestra on May 15th in London’s newest and pleasant hall, the Cadogan, near Sloane Square. Later Daniel Barenboim made it his own for many concerts including the piano concertos of Mozart recorded twice, and later still the ENO played often with Murray Parahia at the piano, another set of the Mozart concertos, repeated with Mitsuko Uchida at the keyboard.

It was in the Cadogan on December 5 that the ECO played a concert in memory of Sir Charles Mackerras who had often worked with the orchestra at many fine concerts. Because of his predilection for Czech music, the first half included two Czech works and the concert was further connected with CM in that his nephew, Alexander Briger, also Australian born, was on the podium. The evening began with the Czech Suite of Dvorak, a pleasant enough piece but one without much fire in its belly nor the composer’s most lyrical song in its heart. After which we hear a flute Concerto by Josef Myslivicek (1737 – 1781) who was a friend of Mozart’s and was all the rage during his lifetime in Italy, 26 opera’s to his name and a composer much fêted and honoured. This concert was a work in D major and it was thought to be its British premiere. And maybe it’s ultimate, for, agreeable though it was, it could surely have been by anyone of a hundred eighteenth century composers, a collection of formulae of the time. (The poor chap lost his nose and died young of syphilis).

The soloist was Australian born, Argentinean Ana de la Vega and she played well, although not without some moments of peccable intonation.

After the interval the Belgian pianist, Olivier Roberti, gave a thoroughly note and style perfect performance of Mozart’s K. 467 the masterly C major Piano Certo of Mozart, a performance which belised his deadpan, professional looks. Maybe a Curzon or Haskil would have lifted the performance onto a higher plane but this was quite acceptable. So was Briger’s conducting of the final item, Mozart’s wonderful Prague Symphony, a work as perfect as the opera that he wrote for that city. Who was it said that “the best things in life are Shakespeare, the sea and Don Giovanni”?

LEON MCCAULEY

A Fine Piano Recital

It is always a particular pleasure when an artist one has watched growing, achieves mastery. I knew Leon McCauley first as the promising student of Nina Milkina, herself, a great performer of Bach, Mozart and Chopin. Leon has developed into a great pianist himself as shown in his Queen Elizabeth Hall recital on December 1st.

He began with Janacek’s In the Mist, continued with the Brahms – Handel Variations and Fugue, Chopins Impromptus, the four of which make a satisfactory whole, finishing with Samuel Barber’s 1946 Piano Sonata.

The pianist played each of the works as if he was a specialist in that composer. In Janacek’s piece one can see through the mist to the woods and the open-air, also to the salon and the indoors. The Brahms is a happy and fruitful work; strange how one variation reminds the listener of Mussorgsky, another of César Franck!

Was the first Impromptu played too fast, not so much like a butterfly fluttering by more like a swarm of bees in a hurry. But the rest was great Chopin playing, poetic, with the harmonic and melodic intricacies as natural as plant and flower complexities in nature.

I heard the premiere of Berner’d Sonata in Britain when the late, much cherished Natasha Litvin (Lady Spender) played it. Then I thought, it rather turgidly American and overlong, but I was wrong. At seventeen minutes McCauley made it sound not a moment too long. It is romantic music, predominantly emotional, rather reactionary but cogent in its argument.

The Scherzo is brief and as memorial as the one in Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata. The fourth movement, the Finale, begins fugally, continues boogie-woggle and ends toccata-ly.

As an encore Leon played Schumann’s Warum, which, so Myra Hess once told me had to be rendered as Pourquoi? during World War One.

ADRIANA LECOUVREUR

A Fringe Benefit Returns

Cilea’s 1904 opera Adriana Lecouvreur was seen again 22 November, forsaking her 18th century Comédie Française stage for that of Covent Garden, 100 years after the last time. The opera is quite often played in Italy but is a fringe benefit elsewhere, more likely seen in somewhere like Wexford than London. It is done proud at Covent Garden with a good a cast as you could find anywhere, with a famous conductor and in a sumptuous production.

Adriana is often written off as a potboiler but it is (a little) better than that; not dross – but not gold either, pinchback perhaps. What gets it on the stage is that it is a wonderful vehicle for a starry diva, no doubt the Royal Opera mounted the opera because Angela Gheorghiv said she would like to do it.

Truth to tell, she started off not in her best voice but by the third and fourth acts (its quite long, a three hour job) she was on top form, looking gorgeous and singing like the star she can be, liquid notes, delicious phrasing, captivating, a fair treat for ears that too often have to listen to wobblers and shriekers. Moreover there was also the delectable Jonas Kaufmann, tenor of the decade, as for her two-timing self-professed military hero, Marquis of Saxony. What a voice, what a musician! of course he never sounds Italian but who cares? He is as good a tenor as you will hear (sorry, Domingo!), the voice beautiful, so expressive, so powerful when required, wide range.

With Sir Mark Elder masterful in the pit, the opera sped like an arrow with full-blooded playing to complete a performance to cherish. The subsidiary roles were well taken, too, with Adriana’s rival – a mezzo, match! – the poisoning Princess de Bouillion (by no means a soupy villainess) played well by Micaela Schuster and Allesandro Corbelli as the staunch baritone friend (a friend part often played by Tito Gobbi).

Incidentiatally my companion at the performance was Richard Bonynge who had conducted the work for his wife, Joan Sutherland; and he confessed that he never quite understood the intricacies of the plot – it is a convuluted teaser. But of course (as my mother used to say of any drama or opera “she dies in the end, doesn’t she, dear?).

Donald McVicar’s production is straightforward and Charles Edwards’ sets are imposing, rich and seemingly solid. A few doubts about the music; a few memorable tunes and more development would have put the piece firmly in the repertory and not had us thinking how superior was the talent of Verdi and Puccini.

Monday, November 29, 2010

WEXFORD FESTIVAL - 2010

Operatic Rarities

One for the head, one for the heart and one for fun seems to have been the watch word for Wexford for the last few decades; and sometimes one for the rubbish bin, as happened this year. This was The Golden Ticket, derived from Roald Dahl’s story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka and all that. It was premiered in St. Louis this summer with some success. The libretto is serviceable (Donald Sturrock) but often descends from childishness to infantilism – “bum rhymes with chewing-gum”. The composer, Peter Ash (50) is an American who lives in London. He has ideas in plenty but they rarely last for more than a few bars; they are fidgety and not ear-catching or memorable. Only at the beginning of the second, final, act is there a longer stretch, horn solo over a pedal point and a couple of choruses, no melodic phrases to catch hold of except for some dallying with “Happy Birthday to you”. Idiom nothing to frighten the horses.

The children in the packed house seemed to like it and so did the grown-ups. But there was nothing to attract the music or opera lover. The production was spot-on, as ingenious as a smart pantomime. Charlie (Michael Kepler Meo) is a clever American boy with a good clear treble. Wayne Tigges was a cane-twirling, bland Wonka without charm. There was a soprano with a fine voice and an ample girth but her name was not apparent. Quite droll were four stalwarts tip to toe in a double bed who indulge in ever so comic wind-breaking. James Robinson’s production included tv screens, balloons, mounds of shifting chocolate, never a dull moment, and a hectic moto perpetuo. The opera put me off sweets and chocolates for a whole day.

The second opera I saw (October 24) was Hubicka / The Kiss. Composers are said to incorporate their feelings and situations into their music. Poor old Smetana was broke, having career and marital problems when he was overnight stricken tone deaf. Next work a tragedy? Not a bit of it – a comedy, this Kiss. About a girl who loves her man but refuses to give him pre-nuptial lip caress. The second act has a red herring subplot about smugglers but it all works out by the end.

How does the opera compare with The Bartered Bride? Hardly. It goes through the motions but lacks the all important lyrical melodic gems of the Bride. Here there is only one gorgeous hit number, a paean to the skylark, delivered superbly by a subsidiary character, Russian Ekaterina Bakanova. The non-oscillating heroine was sung more than adequately by the South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza, but less than audience charming. Peter Berger was her beau, Slovakian tenor with good notes but not much juice in the voice. Production, orchestra, chorus, cast, conductor (Jaroslav Kyzlink), décor, all up to scratch.

Virginia was the fifty-seventh opera of Severio Mercadante (1795 – 1870), a blood and guts affair set in mid-fifth century Rome. Act one: He, Patrician, loves Plebeian; She loves another of the plebs. Act two: complications, father involved. Act three: heavy death rate, all fall down, end of opera. Scene 1: orgy, Roman style, until two chaps appear in pin-stripes! Scene 2: kitchen sink. Has the producer had an attack of Clever-dickery? No, he is pointing up that today we have parallel problems. But the way that the opera precedes is curious: action is frozen quite unrealistically for long periods until all hell breaks loose (plays by G.B. Shaw). Mercadante started off something like Rossini but his later operas often sound like Verdi. Virginia is the work of talent, a great talent, but it lacks the spark of genius which Verdi had. Mercadante writes marvellously for the voice, there are fine concerted numbers and two fine concertatos. The idiom, the drama, rhetoric, continuity, interesting orchestration (bits for muted brass and percussion, gurgling clarinets, plaintive cor anglais, effective harp-writing – all this keeps the listener alert and responsive.

The star of the show, indeed the star of the festival, was the American soprano, Angels Meade, a dramatic soprano with a full range, only twenty-four, is halfway towards being a Montserrat Caballé, in voice, in style – and girth! Unusually in the score are two leading tenors; singers quite often in unison. Ivan Magri was a fine Appio (did he have a way?), Hugh Russell sang well as the father who stabs his daughter to prevent her getting into more trouble. Venezuelan young conductor Carlos Izcaray is one to watch, exciting and accurate.

Wexford is a seaport town in the south-east of Ireland. The festival was started by a local anaesthetist who, t’was said, put the town to sleep for eleven months but woke it up for Hallow’een. Since 1951 the town’s splendid little opera-house has resounded to the music of operas near and beyond the fringe.

TAKÁS QUARTET

Bliss was it

Some like concerts by orchestra, some choral, others opera but for many of us a good concert by a string quartet is our idea of heaven. The programme played by the Takács on November 10 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall was perfection itself; it was a pleasure and a privilege to be in the audience.

Two points about the string quartet that struck me are 1) that the quartet repertory is more consistently superior – which is why players stick to quartet playing even though the rewards do not compare with those of other branches of performing, and 2) quartets rehearse far more often than, say, orchestral musicians do. The programme of the Takács was an appetising and satisfying one; Haydn in E flat, opus 77/3, Shostakovich no. 2 and Mendelssohn’s A minor, opus 13. Haydn at his most mature, this was music about music, nothing to do with his private life or emotions, just genial music by a genius.

The Shostakovich is the one where the first movement is labelled Overture; the second is recitatives and cadenza, followed by a theme and variations. There are violent changes of scenery in this work: the music jogs along and then suddenly you are in strange, positively dangerous straits, you wonder where on earth you are going, and then suddenly the sun comes out and you know why he went the way he did.

Was there ever such marvel as the teenage Mendelssohn? The Octet, the overture to Shakespeare’s Dream and the A minor Quartet, opus 13, before he was eighteen. Surely he eclipses Mozart, Britten, Shostakovich (and the infant Crotch)? Also remarkable about the Quartet is that young Felix incorporates memories and near quotes of the late Beethoven quartets, his A minor in particular. And he also puts in code messages and references to a girl that he was in love with (Betty Pistor seems to have been her name).

I came across the result of a cranium scan of Felix taken at that time. “Rather greedy, fond of young children and flirtatious, although music seems to be his chief interest in life”. Hum!

This A minor quartet is surely the work of a genius, completely perfect in shape and content with those typical qualities of Felix the Great, of an ecstatic joyous quickly moving thrust.

Photo by Ellen Appel

Monday, November 15, 2010

POOR DON GIOVANNI

It is usually a sinister portent when there is stage business during the overture. So it proved on November 6, London Coliseum, for English National Opera’s new production of Don Giovanni. Rufus Norris is an award-winning director in the theatre but this was his début in an opera house. It should be asked: why must we pay his college fees?

He has yet to learn to respect the composer and not interrupt an aria with stage business. Perhaps the management should have asked him before he was engaged: 1) does he like opera and 2) does he like Don Giovanni?

The curtain was up from the start revealing a suspended contraption – something like a railway track of a circle – whose sole raison d’être was to hang some balls on it in the act one finale (by which time we knew whose balls we would like to see hanging there). Don Giovanni ambles on and promptly takes his trousers off (Oh mores, oh Robertson Hare!). Later scenery was wall-like slabs that moved around. One of them removed into a small room complete with gas or electric fire and wash basin. Why? Videos abound. The two big chords at the start of the overture were punctured by blinding flashes of light. The Commentator was no statue but pedestrian. Not long after the Don had disappeared down a the trap door, the rest of the principles popped up through it. I heard a neighbour in the stalls remark “this is f****** nonsense”.

The orchestral playing and musical director was in the safe hands of Kirill Karabits (the programme did not disclose his nationality but did tell us that the is musical director of the Bournemouth Symphony).

Good singing came from Matthew Best as the Commentators and from Andrew Sherratt, a fine Leprello. Iain Peters was a good Don but charmless – I doubt if his shag count would have exceeded a dozen. The three ladies had their moments but on the whole this was mal canto rather than bel. Do singers today never listen and learn from singers of the past? They wobble a lot and have little sense of a lyric line: Katherine Broderick (Anna). Sarah Redgwick (Elivra) and Sarah Tynan (Zerlina). Is it explained by their having to sing so loud because of the vastness of the stage? But then a pianissimo by a well produced voice can project to the back of the house.

Poor Giovanni, since he doesn’t conclude his rape of Anna, his seduction of Zerlina is interrupted and he doesn’t fancy Elvira anymore, his tally of 1003 seems unlikely to augment.

SIR CHARLES MACKERRAS

A Conductor for All Seasons

Charles Mackerras was a conductor for all seasons, certainly for four centuries of music, his range was extraordinary, from Cavalli to Janacek and beyond: his Handel was alive, crackling and beguiling, his Mozart loving and spirited, his Beethoven sonorous and magisterial, his Brahms warm and grand whilst he excelled in many twentieth century composers from Elgar to Stravinsky, although perhaps his greatest achievement was to introduce Janacek, first to us in Britain and then to the world via opera houses and CDs. Almost from the start of his conducting in Sadler’s Wells he had proved himself a good conductor but as he went on, he became a great one, seemingly an expert in the works of any composer he performed.

Janet Baker spoke for us all when she eulogised Charles at his funeral: “performers develop a bond that grows out a common purpose, to serve the composer as best we can .... I have never known a musician who filled that duty more than Charles did; the burning intention that shaped and drove him had one purpose: to put his gifts at the composer’s service before anything else; he demanded the same dedication from his singers and players; he drove us very hard because he wanted us to match his vision, his search for perfection, and we responded to it.”

Mackerras had great knowledge about the composers whose works he conducted, great knowledge too about the craft of conducting, but with all that preliminary knowledge he also had the true conductor’s gift to communicate with his performers; he was able to energise them, to teach them, lead them, to get the best out of them, to inspire them. Beecham used to say that conducting was a mysterious craft: Charles was able to solve the mystery.

He reached the summit although he didn’t give the audience much to look at, he was a pale looking man, a nice toothy smile but he did not flash like Beecham, leap about like Bernstein, terrify like Koussevitsky or strike poses like Stokowsky. The sound was all, pure music-making, profound and satisfying. There was no middle man between the music and the listener.

Although Charles was born in the USA, he was Australian, reared in Sydney. He made his living first as an oboist. Overseas he made his conducting debut at the Wells conducting Die Fledermaus. Like all truly great conductors he was also a good director of light popular music. He rescued Sullivan’s Cello concerto from oblivion and arranged some of the Savoy opera music for the ballet; his Pineapple Poll was a great success. Starting with Katerina Ismailova in 1963, he often conducted at Covent Garden. He had 5 years at Hamburg Opera. A spell as guest conductor with the BBC Symphony was not a happy time but after that he guested in America and all over Europe.

He was one of the pioneers in decorating eighteenth century music, especially the use of appogiaturas (leaning notes).

He welcomed the opportunity of working annually with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. One of the band’s violinists, Catherine Mackintosh wrote: “How lucky we were to have him inspire us for so long.” It was a marvel that, though terminally ill this year, he was able to go on working. His performances in the summer at Glyndebourne continued until only a few weeks before he died – he had tremendous courage, guts and will power.

Sir Charles worked a great deal with the Philharmonia Orchestra as well as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment so it was fitting that both those ensembles organised a concert in his memory on November 4 in the Royal Festival Hall. The period orchestra began fittingly with Handel’s Fireworks Music, which grand music Charles had recorded back in 1959 (the sessions took place at night, the only time that, for example, 26 oboes could be mustered). A young Czech conductor, Tomas Notopil, conducted a passionate Dvorak Symphony No. 7, Julian Rachlin and Laurence played well in a faultily balanced performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. The marathon concert programme ended, naturally, with Janacek: the suite from The Cunning Little Vixen that Charles had devised and the final scene from the same opera with Sir Tom Allen singing the Gamekeeper’s song about the renewal of life. This was programmed at Charles’s wish and was directed well by his nephew Alexander Briger. Here one could not help noticing that he has not the gift, like Charles and the truly great performers, of seeming to have more time than lesser artists, more time for notes, nuances and phrasing.

It was good that Judy, Lady Mackerras, was in the audience. Charles would have been the first to acknowledge that Judy, a former clarinettist, had been a wonderful support all their long married life.

KENNEDY THE GREAT

Vivaldi in Bulk

Nigel Kennedy brought his Polish chamber orchestra for a short tour in November. Reports from the concert in Birmingham spoke of gross unpunctuality, faulty intonation, low jinks, the audience complaining. However the act was throughly cleaned up by the time they reached the Royal Bertie Hall on November 3. There was no reason not to confirm that our Neidge is without doubt the finest violinist playing today, virtuosity, articulation, tone, musicality – he has it all.

But was it wise to play eight concertos by Vivaldi? Surely it is only the supergreats that can survive played in bulk? True, he interposed two of Bartok’s Forty-four Duets for two violins and a sultry moody song of Duke Ellington but even so .... We also had Kennedy the entertain with us. Neidge really can communicate with his off-and-on-the cuff sagacious cracks. Not sure about the shouting, stamping and incressant kissing – can we have too much of that?

His new outfit is called The Orchestra of Life, Brits at the top and bottom, leader Lizzie Hall, double-bass Kai West, and the rest Polish, a prepondererance of gorgeous gals handpicked for beauty and talent, plus plucked continuo. And the orchestra plays, and is directed by Neidge, as if its very life depended on it; this is how music-making ought to be all the time. Two other violin soloists played superbly and deserve to be mentioned: Sonja Schebek and Alicja Smietana, golden blondes, golden tones.

But the whole thing went on too long; three hours of Vivaldi, violinist perfection, spicy interludes and Kennedy the cheeky chappy, the ragamuffin, still punching the air touching fists and behaving like some Pinocchio of the sixties. When I left Neidge and the band were still knocking out encores. I suppose we were lucky he didn’t play the other 592 Concertos of Vivaldi.

WIGMORE THRALL

Where can you go in London any day of the week and be sure of good music, good music-making, comfortable amenities, couple of bars and a restaurant? The answer is the Wigmore Hall, which started life in 1901 as the Bechstein but changed its name in World War One to that of the street in which it is situated. Every night there are performances and sometimes there are programmes at other times; Sunday mornings, lunch times, maybe afternoon.

In World War Two there were two notable series: French Music, organised by the Free French, programmes chosen and sponsored by the critic Felix Aprahamian, at which one could hear the gamut of French music performed by the likes of Maggie Teyte, the Griller Quartet and, after the Liberation, Pierre Bernac with Francis Poulenc, Ginette Neveu, Yvonne Léfébure and the Parennin and Loewenguth Quartets; and the Boosey and Hawkes sessions at which recent music was heard, John Ireland’s Sarnia played by Clifford Curzon, or Britten’s new Serenade; occasionally there were concerts given by the Boyd Neel or the Jacques string orchestras; these were the plums but the majority of concerts heard were performed by débutantes where the accompanists – Gerald Moore or Harold Craxton, were so much more distinguished than the singers, Ernest Newman the critic suggested that instead of the fliers announcing ‘So-and-so soprano with so-and-so at the piano’, it should proclaim ‘Gerald Moore, piano and, at the bottom the voice: so –and-so’.

To come back to the present, during two weeks in October I heard three strings quartet recitals which gave great pleasure to full houses – the Wigmore is usually sold out.

First there was a lunchtime programme given by the Skampa Quartet (who play standing up, cellist on a platform); two girls, two men, two works: Dvorak’s elegiac A flat, opus 106, and Shostakovich’s number eleven, the latter a curious work consisting of seven short movements played continuously, interesting ideas but not developed, a bit like an hors d’oeuvre without a main dish to follow, intriguing at times, gently ambling, furiously powerful at others, containing a humoreske that cuckoos at us (do they have cuckoos in Russia – what was DSCH trying to tell us?) The girl leader of the Skampa is a splendidly full-blooded player, she really leads, the result being a distinguished group.

In fact all three quartets played in exemplary fashion, faultless. But then quartets rehearse every day as a rule so that the music is really in their blood, whereas orchestras rehearse a programme only two or three times (through of course they may have played the pieces many times). Both the Endallion and Chilingirian Quatrets have been playing together now for forty years or so (‘and it don’t seem a day too long’) but they do not show any signs of old or even middle age except perhaps in their extra maturity and virtuosic performances. The Chilis, as we call them affectionately, played a programme that some found odd: Bartok 4, Haydn in G, opus 77/1, and finishing with Beethoven’s C sharp minor, opus 131, the latter, an Everest of a Quartet, a work of the most intense, concentratrated power combined with moments of spiritual power (maybe there is a God). Isn’t it a wonder that Beethovan could survive creating such a work?

The Endellions also included a Bartok, number 5, flanked by two Beethovens; the early C minor, opus 18/4 and the first of opus 59, the F major Razoumovsky, almost as big a step forward as the Eroica Symphony.

The Wigmore Hall is famous for its perfect acoustic. Most people believe that wood is the secret of a good acoustic. But the Wigmore is mostly plaster with strong dollops of marble and wood, as I found out when making a BBC programme about the hall during which I interviewed an acoustic expert, and Mr. Lake who shifted music stands and the piano for some sixty years after joining the staff in 1902.

When I asked Mr. Lake about the past he said that one of the curoius things was that all the female performers wore hats, so large that much of the sound the singers made went into the thick material of their gear. The other astonishing fact was that accompanists were not allowed into the Green room; they were cooped up in an upper room, awaiting their turn. Even famous and knighted musicians suffered this indignity, be they Landon Ronald or Hamilton Harty.

Arthur Rubinstein once told me this story: as he was finishing the last item in a recital that had gone rather well, he was thinking about the encores he might play. He came off, took a bow, came off and decided to wait a moment or two before going back to take another bow. “Builds up the antipaiciption, you know” he said, “Then just as I was going back into the auditorium, the attendant (Mr. Lake perhaps) said ‘They’ve all gone, sir’ and by George, so they had. I was rather annoyed so when I got back to th Savoy I telephoned a friend to find out what had happened. She said: ‘Oh, it was Margot Asquith. She rose from her front-row seat and addressed the audience, saying ‘Go home, do you want to kill the poor man after playing his heart out for two hours? Go home.”

And they did.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Joan Sutherland

November 1926 – October 2010

When she first had her singing equipment examined by Ivor Griffiths, famous E.N.T. specialist, he declared he had never seen such a large and perfect set of vocal cords. This gift from heaven was unfortunately complemented by sinus trouble that plagued her all her life. But that naturally beautiful voice from an early age was lucky never to have been tampered with by faulty teaching. Her other stroke of fortune was to be coached, first of all in her native Australia, later in England, by Richard Bonynge, pianist, husband and subsequently her conductor.

In her early days she worshipped the sound of Kirsten Flagstad’s voice and thought she might be a Wagnerian soprano. An obsession to sing in Covent Garden led her, after winning competitions and dates at home, to come ‘overseas’. After several auditions she was accepted by the Royal Opera and in 1952 she sang First Lady, High Priestess and Clotilde (to Callas’ Norma), soon graduating to Amelia, Helmwige, Woglinde (are you with me?), then Aida, Agatha, Lady Rich and Jenifer in The Midsummer Marriage. Many of us still remember her limpid tones in that last-named opera, whose plot she did not understand, and incomprehension that only increased when the composer Michael Tippett explained to her what it was all about.

Sutherland was fortunate in that she not only had Bonynge to coach her but that David Webster, the Intendant of the Royal Opera, believed in her. Richard Bonynge adored the music of the first half of the nineteenth century (Italians often call it the Otto Cento). Webster through she could sing Lucia (di Lammermoor) and persuaded his board to send her to Italy to study the role with Tullio Serafin, Grand Old Man of Italian Opera, who had been Callas’ mentor and conductor. Webster also had the vision to appoint Zeffirelli as director. This great producer took Joan in hand, coaching, coaxing and positively glamorising the tall, still rather gawky, big chinned lass from Sydney. He transformed her into a queen of the stage while Serafin and Bonynge saw to the musical and vocal side. The watershed premiere on 17 February 1959 made Sutherland a star, the audience cheered and cheered. She could command her future, appearing in the world’s most famous opera houses. Yet she did not become a diva in the bad sense, she was a success but she did not inhale, she was a star but with her feet on the earth.

Vienna, Paris, The Met, La Scala, Covent Garden – as someone charmingly misquoted: “the world was her lobster”. Bonynge began to try his hand with the baton. It was precarious at first as he wasn’t able to begin quietly out of town, it was the big houses where she sang. Gradually he improved; and of course it was ever so convenient. Recordings proliferated; and sold well. There was a tenor they liked to work with: name, Pavarotti. And there was a mezzo they also liked: name Marilyn Horne. Towards the end of her career in 1990 her excellent biographer, dame Norma Major, catalogued her performances. Lucia di Lammermoor she sang an amazing 221 times; other statistics:

  • Tales of Hoffmann – 124
  • Norma – 111
  • Violetta - 81
  • Elvira (Puritani) – 67
  • Donna Anna – 61
  • Anna Glavari – 57
  • Lucrezia Borgie - 51
  • Anna Bolena – 30
  • Leonora (Trovatore) – 31
  • Semiramide – 34
  • Gilda – 22
  • Desdemona – 21

And she sang at least another 36 roles.

Your scribe remembers in particular the Lucia premiere, Semirmide at la Scala (at curtain down one o’clock somebody said “if that was a semi-ramide, how long would a whole one take?), a Don Giovanni with Siepi, Lorengar, Kraus c. Böhm – Bruno Walter said he had never seen a better Donna Anna – and any number of Daughters of the Reg. – Joan could let her hair down and be funny, and one of the final Merry Widows in Sydney; she entered smiling and deprecatingly as if to say: “ok, fellers, so I’m an OAP but the music is good, lets have a ball” – and she sang like a joyful bird.

It was a husband and wife team that worked and it also solved the problem of loneliness that many solo artists complained of. Bonynge’s decorations of the text did not please conductors at first; Lorin Maazel baulked at appoggiaturas and Sir Adrian Boult was moved to make his only witticism ever: “mad scenes from the Messiah”.

Her (and mostly their) recordings sold like hot cakes: 37 complete operas, give or take the odd Woodbird and operetta, including such rarities as Massenet’s Esclarmonde.

About practically every famous musician there is gossip or some nastiness: there was nothing about Joan, she was jolly, good company, a real human being, keen on needlework and gardening, rather shy, good sense of humour, doting on her son Adam. Latterly they had lived in the French speaking part of Switzerland, clean air for her troublesome sinus, not far from a convenient airport (Geneva). Their house was right next door to their friend Noël Coward.

It was while gardening last year that she fell, breaking both legs. She was ill a long time, her crippling arthritis got worse and she made her final cadence on Sunday, 10 October, aged eighty-three, la Stupenda is no more.

Monday, October 04, 2010

WOT, NO SHOSI?

If there were a prize for the most minimal set, it would undoubtedly go to the one seen in Pimlico Opera’s Madame Butterfly seen on September 19 at Grange Park. The curtain went up to reveal a low platform eight inches high that was all Pinkerton and Sharpless had to sit on as they quaffed their whiskey (no ‘milk-punch’). Behind them, one door shaped screen and a curved sheet of (?) plywood – an armchair was added in act two.

Some of the cast looked as if they had only recently donned long trousers, Sharpless/Andrew Ashwin, more like the Consulate office-boy than the boss, Gozo / Toblas Morz a gangling barrow-boy, Suzuki/Helen Sherman, just out of college. But Butterfly was a genuine oriental – Hye-Youh Lee, beautiful face and well able to sustain the very taxing but opportunity –full role that Puccini composed for her. If she could reduce the rather intrusive beat in her voice she would be ideal. That B.F. Pinkerton/Jesus Leon had a good powerful tenor voice, moderate actor; one could not help wondering how he scraped into the US forces seeing that he is, how should one say it gently, vertically challenged. The singers were all up to the mark, especially the married couple in their sumptuous duet in act one, surely the finest love duet that Puccini ever wrote. The result of that duet appeared later in person; the son of the house won all hearts.

I could have wished for more pointing of the themes in act one and a better balance for the Humming Chorus but otherwise Toby Purser directed a performance with the Neville Holt Orchestra that was satisfying reducing the audience, as it should, to tears, even your scribe, seeing probably his fiftieth or more performance of this wonderful opera.

DELECTABLE DONIZETTI

In a mere quarter-of-a-century Gaetano Donizetti (1797 – 1848) managed to compose over sixty operas as well as a quantity of church music, string quartets etcetera. There were a few duds but mostly it was a success story, particularly the tragedy Lucia di Lammermoor and the comic L’Elisir d’Amore and Don Pasquale. A revival of the last-named had its first night on Sunday, September 12, part of what seems to be a Jonathan Miller residence – Cosi on the Friday and Donizetti on Sunday. In a review of the Mozart, the worthy doctor was commended for not committing the besetting sin of comedy direction: more motion than action, i.e. fidgeting. But it now appears that Jonathan was saving up his fidgets for Pasquale.

The design is credited to Isabelle Bywater but there can be little doubt that Miller inspired the theme. The audience is faced with three floors of a vast dollhouse, three rooms on each side with a central staircase. Traffic is fairly continuous (and ingenious) and the staircase is a kind of perpetuum mobile Upstairs-Downstairs. Apart from the four principals there are three old crones/servants.

Somewhere somebody has listed thirty-six plots which are the basis of most dramas and operas. Don Pasquale is apparently number twenty-eight, the one about the old buffer who weds a girl who behaves like a dove but turns into a hawk as soon as the marriage certificate is signed; she usually ends up with the buffer’s nephew. That is the plot of Pasquale with subplots consisting of a false notary (!) and the buffer’s manipulating friend, Malatesta. Norina reverts to dove status when she falls into the arms of Ernesto the nephew (a tenor, wouldn’t you know).

The music is a delight, genial, a bounty box choc-á-bloc with choice tunes, deft orchestration, great opportunities for the singers with much coloratura and patter in arias and ensembles (even a couple of fine chorus numbers) of impeccable style and shape.

Costa Rican soprano Irida Martinez has a clear voice and no little charm (but her second dress is unbecoming), Paolo Gavinelli is superb in the title-role, S. African Jacques Imbrailo is a marvellous Malatestra. American Berry Banks has been opera’s otto cento bel canto stalwart for yonks but can still get round the notes like nobody’s business even if the voice is losing its sap somewhat. He must be the smallest tenor in captivity. He sang the famous Serenade in the last act quite mellifluously.

Chorus and orchestra helped to make the evening full of pleasure directed by Evalino Pido from Turin, a performance with good tampi, style, precision accompaniment, the only let down was the brash brass playing. Maestro Pido would appear to be one of many conductors who confuses volume with intensity.

Alas, Don Pasquale, premiered in Paris in 1843, proved to be the penultimate opera by the Lion of Bergamo for shortly afterwards he became ill. Syphilis brought on insanity and he was also a prey to onanism which weakened him so much that it could be said that Donizetti died by his own hand.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

MILLER MATCHES MOZART

The new season at Covent Garden opened on September 10 with a revival of Jonathan Miller's modern clothes 1995 production of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte. The worthy doctor not only directed but had a hand in the lighting and the designs. The set is spacious in off-white, even the furniture, with plenty of cushions to flop on; no daylight, no Naples. This production is worthy of Mozart. Miller never fidgets (as so many produces do in comedy); some numbers contain movement (memorably Fiordiligi's up and down aria, Come Scoglio) but others are sung belessedly fairly still. The two lovers go to war in camouflage army gear, returning kitted out as 'rollers' (or is it 'rockers').

Max Loppert has written that Cosi is the cruellest opera plot but I think audiences mostly accept it as a study in artificiality. But Mozart's score has a life of its own, setting comic words and plot with a depth of tenderness, passion and sensibility that is unique; emotions run deep. We are involved with the characters (as we never are in Rossini, masterly though the music is). This is our world as Mozart draws us into his.

Tom Allen is Don Alfonso, arch manipulator, suave, naughty but nice, Italian to the tips of his fingers (just as recently his hands seem to speak French in La Fille du Regiment). What a master is Sir Thomas, singing well too.

It took a little time to work out which was Fioridiligi, which Dorabella, so sisterly did they look and sing. Swedish Maria Bengtsson was the former, Jurgita Adamonyte from Latvia the latter, two clear-voiced miscreants with charm. Pavel Breslik (Slovak) sang a good Ferrando though his voice is not very tenorish; French baritone Stephane Degout was a melliflous Guglielmo. The whole cast excelled in their comedy so that we all had a good evening, not the least Welsh Rebecca Evans, a nimble voiced Despina.

German Thomas Hengelbrock made an auspicious conducting debut in the house.

The performance was telecast live to over 200 cinemas on the Continent so Europe was a happy place that night. I have a theory that the first Mozart opera one sees becomes one's favourite. Mine was/is Cosi, what was yours? and do you agree?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

STEADY, MR BEETHOVEN THAT WAS YOUR FIFTH

Headine borrowed from the writing of that wonderful humorist, the late Alan Coren. The occasion was a concert given on the last evening of August in the Cadogan Hall by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Not so chamber either, there were thirty-eight of them giving a satisfying and rousing performance of the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven.

Writing a programme-note on this work would have to include some reference to 'Fate knocking at the Door', some comments on the political situation in central Europe, the military state of Austria and Germany and, Beethoven's by now whose almost complete deafness and his efforts re combat that shattering disability.

But these considerations can disappear if the performance of the symphony is good enough; and this one was. The playing was very fine led by the director of the A.C.O., Richard Tognetti; the tension never let up; the drama and logic of the work was inexorably revealed, like the flight of an arrow towards the target. From 'fate knocking at the door' to the final clinching, to the series of at least twenty repetitions of the final chord of C Major - like fate slamming the door.

The stamina of the instrumentalists (who stand throughout) was as remarkable as their playing. Moments that stand out were the cellos and basses, their solo bit in the trio of the scherzo where it seemed that the players had remembered that Sir Henry Wood at this point would exhort his men "come on cellos, like a cavalry charge"). Fine, too, was the piccolo's jubilant cry in the finale.

After this stirring, almost exhausting rendition, Tognetti and his players encored with the finale of Mozart's Jupiter symphony, adding 'Match' to 'Game, set'. I think Beethoven would have approved the choice after a concert that pleased an appreciative and distinguished audience (that included Sir Michael Parkinson, Simon Callow, Barry Humphries, Melvyn Tan, and Steven Isserlis).

However I fancy Beethoven would not have approved the Croatian pianist Dejan Lazic's handling of his Piano Concerto No. 4 . He might have said "Why does he slow down for quiet passages and speed up again for the louder ones? and the cadanzas were were horrible, not my style at all, no way, too loud and too many modulations (I bet the pianist wrote them himself).

Lazic has won many plaudits but he only gets them from me for his fluency and his way of playing scale passages in a semi-staccato way, like pearls in a necklace. Needless to say, the audience mopped it up for his is a good example of the Lang Lang school of virtuosity at all costs and in all works.

The programme began with a work for solo violin and strings almost half-an-hour long Vox Amoris which Tognetti had commissioned and played most beautifully. The Latvian composer was Peteris Vasks (b.1946) whose music has been compared to that of Part and Gorecki. The Voice of Love begins quietly, slowly working up to a full climax (via two cadenzas). The material would not frighten the horses for it is quasi melodic but only quasi, meandering in a untuneful, unmemorable way.

This Australian Chamber Orchestra is welcome any time it visits, for it is world class.

YOUTH AND OLD AGE

In 1947 Ruth Railton founded the National Youth Orchestra. Many years later the Continent cottoned on to the idea. First, the European Youth Symphony Orchestra, whose first concert was conducted by Claudio Abbado. Later still Abbado founded the Mahler Jugendorchester and it was that band that played at the Prom on September 1. The European youth orchestras have advanced the age from adolescents to young players in their twenties. At the Prom there were something like 135 players, two-thirds (and nearly all the strings) were girls, bare-armed in black dresses. There were only four Brits playing, one of them the leader; there were over twenty from France, ditto Spain, the rest in single figures from just about every European country except Luxembourg.

Hearing them and seeing them was an experience to savour, cherish and marvel at. The standard of playing was phenominally high, no weakness anywhere. This of course was due to what a good trainer and conductor can do with a carefully picked and rehearsed body of instrumentalists. That conductor was the American born, Swedish, Herbert Blomstedt, known here more for his recordings than his personal appearances. He is no flailing showman but a craftsman of the old school.

The result was absolutely superb performances of Hindemith's masterpiece, the symphony culled from his opera Mathis der Maler, the opera that got the composer (and Furtwangler) into hot water with the Nazis; after Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a lovelorn Kraut was the racist translation of a neighbour in the stalls) tenderly sung by the honey-voiced baritone Christian Gerhaher, delicately played by a reduced orchestra (only four of the full pack of a dozen double-basses).

The audience in the Royal Albert Hall (where once upon a time Anton Bruckner had given an organ recital) listened in rapt silence to the Austrian composer's final, unfinished symphony. The work is a monument of nobility, strength, spirituality, originality and beauty that can also be called sublime (mind you, some call it a garrulous, start-and-stop bore). It was a privilege to experience, to hear, and see those young women string players all bowing identically 'for the greater glory of God' perhaps, and certainly for the musical satisfaction and elevation of several thousand listeners.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

WIERD AND WONDERFUL

News from the Var

Can you imagine anything stranger than a string quartet transcription of Mozart’s Requiem, K. 626? Perhaps even stranger was that hearing it was a pleasing and moving experience. This weird occurrence took place in a cloister of the Abbaye Royale in Celle, a village on the outskirts of Brignoles, a few miles north of Toulon. The Debussy Quartet played it with conviction differentiating in intensity and decibels between the various strands, the tender moments coming off best. Admittedly the most wonderful moment of all did not quite come off: that amazing crescendo near the beginning of the Lachrymosa where the harmonies and modulations go on and on in ecstasy until you think if it continues you might die (but Mozart did!). I think maybe that knowing the work helped but that is necessarily only a guess. It was a rum experience but more enjoyable than expected. (French Decca have recorded it but if you want the original on a CD get the one on the BBC Legend label conducted by Britten – its shatteringly wonderful).

But wonderful also was my next musical experience in Provence. Pippa Paulik runs a little festival high up in the hills, not far from Grasse, nearer to Fayence. Concerts and operas are given in a little place called Seillans, concerts are given in a small church perched on the summit of a steep hill. The one I went to August 8 was in two parts, the first contained two French chamber septets, Saint-Saëns’ entertaining neo-classical one with trumpet and Ravel’s masterly Introduction and Allegro with Tanya Houghton a virtuosic harpist. The performers are mostly British and excellent. Super excellent however was the tenor Andrew Staples in the second part when he sang half-a-dozen arias as near perfectly as I have heard, short of Tito Schipa and Heddle Nash. Staples is thirty, personable with a beautiful lyric voice supported by consummate musicianship. Please note the name: I think he is a star. He pleasured us with Dalla sua Pace from the Don, the picture aria from the Flute, a Gluck number, Lalo’s magical Aubade and ended with the Prize Song (which he will sing even better in five years time.) Suzy Ruffles supported him in a most appealing way.

Staples also directed two performances of Cosi fan tutte! A small orchestra and chorus performed Bach Brandenburgs, Fauré Requiem, Tippett Spirotuals and an evening of jazz, etcetera; step ten feet away and you can enjoy good French food and drink. Why not go next year?

A QUESTIONABLE DON GIOVANNI

If Socrates had been in my seat at Glyndebourne on 18 August it is possible that he might, as was his wont, have wanted to ask a few questions about the performance, such as: Why use the Vienna version and not the usual one? Just for a change? It deprives us of Il mio tesoro, adds a lively duet for Zerlina and Leporello and shortens the coda-finale. Why design sets that are so monumental that they dwarf the singers? Mind you, they are very handsome (Paul Brown). Jonathan Kent’s production is also handsome but, as so often nowadays, it ignors the class distinctions and social mores of the times the drama is set in. For example, even supposing that she would listen to a servant’s catalogue of his master’s amorous conquests, Elvira would not forget her social station so much as to go down on her knees in a street – nor allow Leporello to goose her, now would she?

The Don’s amazing escape at the end of act one is made with the aid of flamesshooting up all over the set. But surely the place for flames is when the Don gets his come-uppance at the end and is dragged down to hell?

La ci darem. Why does Don take Zerlina’s hand before he asks the question? Mozartclearly points out the acutal moment when Zerlina gives way; why anticipate it, it spoils the seduction?

O.K. Socarates, thats enough questions. So lets look at the performaers. Glyndebourne’s musical director, Vladimir Jurowski, handed over the nine August performances to Jakub Hrusa, associate conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, who is going to direct the Glyndebourne Touring Opera this autumn; he conducted a stylish, taut performance of the Don, beginning with an Overture whose allegro showed him to be more of a hare than a tortoise, more of an Arturo T. Than an Otto K. Or a Reggie G..The star of this performance came from below the salt; Luca Pisaroni was a brilliant Leporello, so good that he put Gerald Finley’s well sung Don in the shade, rather low voltage, one couldn’t image this Don chalking up 1003 sedutions, seareely 501 ½. Kate Royal’s Elvira had some very luke-warm reviews but she was in good voice on August 18 although I think she was miscast. The Russian Donna Anna, Anna Samuil, warmed up for second act after a dsappointing opening Zerlina, Anna Virovlansky, also Russian, was excellent, it would be a pleasure to darem her mano any day of the week.

So after the questions, the answer is that this was an enjoyable Don, if not a great one. It was certainly an improvement on the last Sussex Don – remember that dreadful dead horse and its all too visible gizzards?

CORAL BROWN(E)


Born Melbourne 1913, Australian, but not always proud of it. Latterly added an e to her name( it helped her career somewhat). Brown was a frumpy Oz: Browne became an elegant, sophisticated lady. No Ozzie accent except when joking or swearing.

The word originally intended to describe copulating was never far from her lips. She was witty and is remembered as much for her foul-mouthing as for her supreme talent as an ACTRESS.

Statistics
28 plays in Australia
41 in UK
7 in USA
31 films
15 TV
11 radio shows
7 full pages of bibliography

As likely as not her performances in comedies were more success than the plays she acted in. But when she played classics she scooped the plaudits, in Wilde, Maugham, Marlowe, Shaw or Shakespeare. “I have seen some good Macbeths but never a Lady Macbeth as memorable or magnificent as Coral Browne.”

Why did she collect awards and prizes but was never given an Honour? Was it because her reputation led the authorities to fear that she might say to the Monarch, “Thanks for the fucking medal?”

Play after play she showed her superiority on the stage; she was always inside the characters she portrayed, her acting was sparkling and in depth. Sometimes her entrance was applauded and she acknowledged that with a twitch of her left eyebrow. She was married twice: first to Philip Pearlman. Midway in her career, Coral joined the distinguished band of actors who suffered seriously from stage fright.



Asked about her later (rather unlikely) marriage with Vincent Price, the silken-voiced master of horror movies when they were both well over sixty, she explained to a friend that their opening night - was like squeezing a marshmallow into an old leather bag! They got on well, even though when they lived in the States she was Mrs Vincent Price rather than Miss Coral Browne. He was the big celebratory known nationally for his horror, locally for his personal appearances, TV shows, lectures on wine. Coral had her face lifted to the extent that when she smiled “it was a terrible effort to get the gum back over her teeth again. And there were endless dietary attempts to keep in shape” (Diana Rigg). Indeed there was a new diet every week. But the cracks were verbal as well as facial (to a dim would-be-writer) “you couldn’t write fuck on a dusty Venetian blind.”

She starred as herself in a TV film about Guy Burgess called An Englishman Abroad. It won awards for her and the author Alan Bennett. Dream Child was another success in TV ( script: Denis Potter). At 70, Coral was enjoying an Indian Summer. She thought Dream Child one of the three best things she had done, the others being Macbeth and Waltz of the Toreadors. “She was fun to work with” (Prunella Scales).

“I’ve got a hole under my arm from the last op and now another in my leg. And that’s in addition to the holes God gave me. I feel like a fucking sieve.” She referred often to joining the feathered choir.

Faith: She became a fervent Catholic. To a young author asking her for work after a service in Brompton Oratory “get anyway can’t you see I’m in a state of fucking grace.”

She married an actor (later agent) not of the first range, then latish in life Vincent Price. She was apparently a devoted wife, but if these two were the main courses, her starters, side orders and desserts were almost legion - and starstudded; Jack Buchanan, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr., Cecil Beaton, Michael Hordern, Paul Robeson for starters.

She had a lengthy affair with the impresario Firth Shephard; Coral used to say, “Firth is my Shephard; I shall not want; he leadeth me into green pastures; he maketh me to lie down in strange places.” she was his leading lady in many lucrative runs. But she also shephered him for she read plays for him often and persuaded him, to put on several plays that he had thumb-downed. (Like The Man who came to Dinner).

Sometimes she liked to discountenance dressing-room visitors by receiving them in the nude.

She was a good, caring, generous friend but that did not stop her spearing them with her caustic wit and naughty nicknames. Ralph Richardson became Sir Turnip, Laurence Olivier Lord Puddleduck and his wife Lady Blowright.

She said about her roles in films: “either a vamp, a sex-starved wife, a murder victim or somebody’s mother.”

Someone else (in the USA) said: “a talent which combined the impact of an Ethel Merman with the intensity of a Judith Anderson.” She worked at her life, her relationships, her friendships, and her marriages were as successful as her work in the theatre. Under her wicked sense of humour there lurked a great vulnerability.

She was blessed with great good looks rather than outstanding beauty and it is to be doubted that any actress in the long history of British theatre had the art of making more of the gifts she was given by God.

When Vincent Price was asked (memorial service) what were her favourite hymns he said there were too many to mention - and quite a few hers. He did not attend that service but a letter from him was read out:

“I find I miss every hour of Coral’s life – I miss her morning cloudiness, noon mellowness, evening brightness. I miss her in every corner of our house, every crevice of my life. In missing her, I feel I’m missing muh of life itself. Over her long illness, as I held her hand or stroked her brow, or just lay still beside her, it was not the affectionate contact we’d known as we wandered down the glamourous paths we’d been privileged to share in our few years together, we were marching toward the end of our time and we both knew it. But, in our looks, our smiles, the private, few, soft-spoken words, there was hope of other places, other ways, perhaps, to meet again.”

And some lines from a poem by Barry Humphries:


A Choral for Coral
....
Her beauty and her shining wit
Sparkle beyond the grave
The girl who didn’t give a shit
Preposterously brave....
Uniquely-minded Queen of Style
No counterfeit could coin you,
Long may you make the angels smile
Till we all fuck off to join you.

Buxton Festival


Richard Strauss once said that he couldn't write about Mozart; he could only worship him but in 1931 he made an edition of one of his god's forgotten operas no doubt thinking he was giving it the kiss of life. Was it the opposite? It took many years before Idomeneo began to be revived and performed (notably at Glyndebourne in 1951).

Strauss wasn't above trying to teach him a lesson or two, he added another pair of horns and substituted a concert aria with violin solo, made cuts, moved things around, composed a rather grumpy interlude, added a quote from his Egyptian Helen of Troy when she is mentioned in the third act and gave the work a new finale ensemble.
An interesting exercise, fascinating for Strauss disciples but on the whole I think most of the audience would have been glad if Strauss had not bothered.

As Idamante, Victoria Simmonds was fine but the singing in general was valiant rather than persuasive. Artistic Director Andrew Greenwood directed intelligently, local chorus good, ditto Northern Chamber Orchestra.

Buxton Festival is on a high, interesting programmes, including literary talks by Roy Hattersley, Deborah Devonshire (the Dowager Duchess) with politician David Blunkett (with black dog) and there were interesting operas (the aforementioned Idomeneo and Luisa Miller, to be mentioned later) and many interesting recitals including some of the opera singers, amungst which I caught a thrilling and satisfying piano hour of Debussy played by Pascal Rogé.

He played half a dozen of the more popular Preludes, better performances of which I don't hope to hear unless I get up-graded to the Pearly Portals, and with his wife played, the Petite Suite and shipped us into La Mer, Debussy's own arrangement. This bought tears to my eyes, it was so exciting and heart-warming – they played with zest and style.

Frank Matcham's Opera House is a little jewel, over a 100 years old , a tiny building designed by an architect who never managed to pass his exams but never the less built nearly a 100 theatres (including the London Coliseum).

Nobody seemed to enjoy Peter Cornelius 'The Barber of Baghdad’, pity because it was an interesting choice but it obviously misfired. But Luisa Miller pleased, written in 1849by Verdi, a Sturm und Drang situation with fatuous lines in the libretto that cannot be taken seriously, indeed, director Stephen Metcalf opted for an ironic tongue-in-cheek production, that is until the tragic end. Tenor and soprano are matched against two villains, one of whom is actually called Worm (Wurm). The basis of the plot is Schiller's play Kabale und Liebe which must surely be several cuts above Commerano’s slack libretto. But, in his late 30's, it suited Verdi down to the melodramatic ground, primitive emotions, no hanging about, good tunes and opportunities for singers, including the chorus, Susan Glanville relished and fitted the title role, bel canto with coloratura. John Bellemer reached effortlessly for his high notes and sang his formidable part with guts and style, Luisa's father has a good baritone part which David Kempston sang eloquently. Worm and his wicked boss, the count, added well to the villainy.

Buxton is said to be the highest town in England and it has high ideals for its Festival. It’s a gracious and elegant place.

Monday, July 26, 2010

STRAUSS’S LAST FLING - CAPRICCIO

Richard Strauss’s last fling at opera was premiered in the dark time in 1942 in Munich, when Germany was in distress and was still causing distress elsewhere. It was also a time of distress for many Germans, not least Strauss, at 78 a world figure but in trouble with the Nazis.

All his life he had tried hard to avoid politics but, being so famous, politics would not avoid him. He feared for the safety of his Jewish loved ones. The Nazis used him and his name when it suited them; eventually they dismissed him and his music as altvaterisch (old fashioned); also he had collaborated with Jewish writers.

As often before, Strauss tried to brush unpleasant things aside, so his 1942 Capriccio looks back to a long gone century for a conversation piece about words and music, which comes first? The plot, if you can call it that, posits a beautiful countess who has two suitors, a poet and a composer. The cast also includes a theatre director, an actress, a dancer, two Italian singers, a prompter and some scene shifters. The idea originally came from the (Jewish) author Stefan Zweig who committed suicide the year of the opera’s premiere. The conductor Clemens Krauss wrote the text of Capriccio in conjunction with Strauss himself; Krauss conducted the first performance and was uniquely rewarded with the dedication of the work (catch Verdi or Puccini doing a similar thing!).

The opera has notable highlights: the prelude played by a string sextet (some premonition here of the masterpiece Metamorphosen), the composer’s sonnet, the Italian singers duet (harking back to Rosenkavalier), a gorgeous intermezzo with horn obbligato, before the soprano’s solo final scene composed in Strauss’s typical D flat lush style. There are also two ensembles of complication, tricky to sing and not setting the world on fire. Some critics have called Capriccio the composer’s finest opera, above the claims of Elektra and Rosenkavalier (discuss?)

This latest addition to the repertory of the Grange, rapidly becoming a rival to Glyndebourne, is more that satisfactory if less than memorable. Stephen Barlow conducts it very well and the large cast is fine with Roderick Williams excelling as the Poet, Stewart Cale as the composer and Matthew Best as the Director. Despite accurate singing, skilled Susan Gritton lacks the cream and the charisma that the part requires. She is the wife, as it happens, of the director Stephen Metcalf who does a first-class and imaginative task in a dowdy set by Francis O’Connor. In the non-singing role of the Dancer Bryony Perkins contributes an enchanting droll cameo, eccentric and zany.

Capriccio is a work for connoisseurs of Strauss and it seemed to please many connoshers in the Grange audience (July 2).

MANON? * MAIS OUI!

Covent Garden is on a high forgetting the daft Aida there have been three outright winners in Turco in Italia, La Fille du Regiment and now Manon. Bravo, Pappano, bravo Padmore. Keep it up!

In his early forties Jules Massenet added to his earlier success with Manon, seventy performances in the first year, 1884, Paris. He had built his reputation on rather lachrymose religious dramas although he once said he didn’t believe in all that ‘creeping-Jesus stuff’. Funnily enough that was the public’s name for him. Apparently each night of a performance he crept round to the box-office to check the takings. The takings were good for the most part for twenty years. Until Pelléas came along and tastes changed.

Manon’s world is the second empire in this sumptuous no expense-spared production by Laurent Pelly (the cost fortunately shared with three other opera houses). The magnificent costumes and sets breathe the very atmosphere of the demi-monde, Renoir and the grandes horizontales. Manon herself is a “mixture of demureness and vivacity, of serious affection but meretricious preferment” – as Kobbé’s Opera Book succinctly puts it. She ruins the religiously – inclined Des Grieux but dies repenting in his arms.

Darling of the operatic public, the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko really takes the stage in the title role, fine voice (perhaps a little too powerful sometimes), but she bulls eyes with her acting, her beauty and the way she wears Pelly’s gorgeous gowns like a denizen of the catwalk. Massenet had many good qualities as a composer, not the least his ability to characterize his heroines with a skilful mix of short notes and winsome harmonies. What easy charm!

As the not yet frocked priest Vittorio Grigolo, from Arezzo, was a worthy foil/lover for this Manon, ardent, impulsive, although he didn’t make one forget the less ardent but more elegant Heddle Nash, anymore than Netrebko made one forget the superior vocalism of Victoria de los Angeles but Grigolo gave a real performance. And so did his stage father, the excellent Christof Fischesser (German for fish eater!), as the Comte des Grieux.

The whole cast, the chorus and the orchestra were on top form under the vivid, stylish Antonio Pappano. A great evening!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

PASSIONATE SHABBINESS

“Shabby little shocker” was the famous put-down by an American critic, a view not shared by the thousands that enjoy Puccini’s Tosca every year, an opera perennially in the top dozen of any house in the world (except Bayreuth), enjoyed for its melodies, its compelling passionate moments and its sumptuous harmonic orchestral passages. Sardou’s story is admittedly over-melodramatic but most audiences are drawn into the predicaments of the actress Tosca and her painter lover Cavarodossi. It was Puccini’s gift in 1900 to the world and a hundred and ten years later – on 27 June – to the Grange Park Opera in Hampshire, the audience applauded vocifierously a fine performance of it.

The production by Lindsay Posner is inventive in some details but it is straightforward and non-conceptual, Peter Mackintosh’s décor likewise. Speaking personally I must have seen the opera at least ninety times but my sob-count was at least four in the first act. Gianluca Marciano abetted and carried out Puccini’s intentions with an augmented English Chamber Orchestra. Only the Te Deum that ends Act One did not have the required weight and sonority.

None of the singers looked Italian but Claire Rutter was a full-voiced and telling Florian Tosca, Peter Auty a strong, satisfying Cavaradossi. Robert Poulton’s Scarpia was a bit less than menacing and his voice lacked the thread of metal required.

With a juicy Three Oranges and a fruity Tosca, Grange Opera is having a good harvest down in the southern shires.

GRANGE ORANGES

Prokofiev was thirty when his opera The Love for Three Oranges was premiered in Chicago at the end of 1931. So it was not the youngest Prkfv (his own abbreviation) but it has youth written all over it. He intended to shock and he succeeded. The music is wild, manic, brittle, ironic, fantastic, contains a lot of stimulating, marvellous music; and quite a lot of second-rate stuff, written, as he admitted, in a hurry. It is a director’s dream, giving him room and a need for invention and an ability to make Prkfv’s extravagant demands work. At the Grange, Hampshire (June 26) it gets what is required from the director/designer David Fielding, gets it in spades (some of the cast are dressed as playing cards). A Prince is wasting away: only if he can laugh will his depression leave him. There are some who would like him to die, others wish him to live.

When one nasty, Fata Morgana, pratt falls the Prince laughs. He also sets out on a search for the trio of citrus fruit that Fata Morgana has told him about, although she warns him that the girls released from their oranges will die if they are not immediately given water. No. Three Orange is the girl that the Prince decides is the one he wants to make Princess. Alas, she turns into a rat. All comes right for the final curtain, after futher adventures with a giant cook and members of the audience who express their wishes for fun and games, not tragedy ..

Before the premiere the composer made the best numbers from the opera into an orchestral suite; this proved a popular success, particuarly the tiny, dotty march that we all know and love. The bits inbetween the suite numbers are rather dry and recitativeish, devoid of melody. The rather thin invention of much of the opera, however gave the director his chance to beguile us with every mod. con.: gimmicks, tricks, amazing lighting effects (the ubiquitous Wolfgang Goebbel, of course). There are many characters and a large chorus, all well sung and effective.

The English Chamber Orchestra (not so chamber neither) is put through its paces under Leo Hussain. There is not much real singing but honours go to the Prince (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts), his dad the King (Clive Bayley) Truffaldino (Gozzi wrote the original story, hence Truffo, well played by Wynne Evans), the P.M. (Henry Waddington) and Fata Morgana (Rebecca Cooper).

The only under-par performance was that of the sur-titles, frequently late or non-existent.

This was a happy event for a summer’s evening.

Friday, May 28, 2010

A BUDD THAT HAS BLOOMED

Engaging a director and a set designer to make their operatic débuts at Glyndebourne sounds like folly; and when that opera is as difficult an assignment as Britten’s all-male Billy Budd, folly turns to madness. However... the result is a triumph, the production the most successful to date, from the première, which I saw on December 1, 1951 onwards. Christopher Oram’s multi-decked set transports us to a ship of the line in 1797 when the British Navy was fighting not only the French but the threat of mutiny within its ranks (a member of the cast told me that the cast cheered when it saw the set at the first stage rehearsal). Herman Melville apparently based his short story on a true story of those old times when conditions were tense, discipline strict and cruel. In the first act we see the bloody result of a young novice flogged because he bumped into the Bosun, a flinchworthy sight that matches Britten’s pathetic music, a contrapuntal slow tangle that parallels some of Bach’s passion music with on the top line a poetic saxophone where the older composer used the cor anglais.

The director, Michael Grandage is well known for his work both in New York and in London where he runs the Donmar Theatre. His handling of a large chorus of the crew is as masterly as that of the principals, both the lower deck and the officers on the bridge. We see Captain Vere who fails to save the young foretopman Billy Budd from the penalty of hanging from the yard arm when, unable to overcome his stammer to answer the charge of mutiny brought by Claggart, the master of arms, he strikes his superior officer dead. Claggart is a villain of the deepest dye with a homosexual lust for the young sailor.

Nearly every opera that Britten composed had to have a big part for his tenor partner, Peter Pears. There is no parallel to this liaison which gave rise to at least six major operas. The curious thing is that Britten wrote music for Pears so bound up with the idiosyncrasies of the tenor’s voice and musical personality that one still seems to hear that unique voice again in the performance of latter-day singers. Here it is John Mark Ainsley singing very well but with the overtones of the original portrayer of the part of Vere. Jacques Imbrailo from South Africa is every inch and every sound Budd, loose-limbed, innocent, a carefree young man until he is doomed. Phillip Ens, from Canada, is an impressive Claggart, only lacking a hard edge to his voice that would make him into a kind of latter-day Iago. All the smaller roles are part of a cast that realises Britten’s intentions.

But all this excellence is matched by a mastermind directing Britten’s wonderful music (on reflection this grand opera and The Turn of the Screw, chamber opera, mark the summit of this composer’s achievement, despite the fine qualities of his first success in the medium Peter Grimes).

It seems to me that Sir Mark Elder is now at the zenith of his career. In his early sixties, every work he conducts has a feeling of rightness and he gets what he wants out of his performers. He is at home with modern music, he delights in music of the ottocento (1800 – 1850), his English music, Elgar and Delius, is first class and here he gives us a perfect performance of Benjamin Britten. The Hallé Orchestra is fortunate in having his direction and his visits to London’s concert halls and opera houses bear golden fruit and, as here, bring a Budd to glorious bloom.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

AIDA

Grandest of the grand

Rossini said: “Nobody is capable of writing grand opera except Verdi”: and Aida is the grandest of the lot. Intended for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 it was eventually premiered in Cairo two years later. The triumph scene is just that, a miracle of organisation and inspiration. Aida, the Ethiopian slave girl, in love with the general of the army, Radames, but has a rival in Amneris, princess of Egypt and the two fathers, Amneris’ King of Egypt, an d Aida’s father, Amonasro, King of Ethiopia.

Act two scene two is the Triumph scene, celebrating the victory by Radames over the Ethiopians. Verdi juggles with three crowds, the Egyptian public, the priests and the defeated Ethiopians – it’s a sort of Three Choirs Festival, with climax after climax. By contrast Act Three is sung only by the four chief characters, it is the heart of the opera. Aida’s success rests mainly on these two peak scenes.

Verdi goes for your heart and your jugular. Never since has opera gone so straight forwardly, almost innocently, for the listener’s heart in terms that everybody can grasp immediately.

From Don Carlos onwards part of the secret construction is that Verdi concentrates on using, in technical terms, chords of the tonic key and its dominant, not often in root positions but in first or second inversion (unlike Berlioz who mostly uses chords in their root position). If you look at a few passages in the score you may see what I mean. And, of course, as well as the harmony, his use of counterpoint has in every line something meaningful and beautiful. Verdi keeps up a stream of inspired melody. A composer of genius in full flow is carried by some strange force, inspiration? Benjamin Britten once said to me that when he was prepared and in form he felt that the music came from somewhere else, as if he was connected to some grid of inspiration.

The new production which I saw on April 27 by Donald McVicar pulls together the many threads of this opera, so complex yet having the impetus of an arrow. The production is compelling if sometimes congested, as if McVicar is trying too hard. The sets designed by Jean-Marc Puissant are dark and gloomy, in contrast to the vision most of us have of Egypt, which is light and sunshine. The action is menaced by a large moveable wall whose prime object is to mask the coming and goings of the various crowds. The ballet is all wriggling, jerking and leap-frogging, effective if not inspired. Act three, the Nile scene looks like a slanted organ console with a big hole in the middle. No local colour or palm trees – too commonplace, perhaps?

Verdi said that his idea of Amneris was a bit of a devil aged twenty. At Covent Garden in this new production he got a singer looking more like a dowager. Admittedly the American mezzo, Marianna Cornetti, was a replacement but she did us no favours with her singing. Amneris is the most interesting character in the opera, dramatically and musically (Verdi seemed to love mezzos) and it is usually a gift to a singer. But this Amneris had a painful beat in her voice and she wob-bob-bob-bled. The Aida, Micaela Corsi, was not wobble-free either and she sang flat sometimes. Her oboeist in her act three aria, O patria mia played his obbligato solos exquisitely; if he had played like the two ladies sang, he would have had his cards (and I bet they were paid ten or twenty times more that he was). The Radames, Marcelo Alvarez, coped with his difficult part well without impressing with any great beauty of timbre. The best singing came from the two kings, Egypt sung by the company stalwart Robert Lloyd, Amonasro (Ethiopia) sung by Marco Vratogna.

The director in the pit, Nicola Luisotti, held things together but smouldered rather than flamed. The chorus did not sound as fresh as it usually does.

The previous production I saw at Covent Garden was Turco in Italia by Rossini and everything was first-class from beginning to end, cast, staging, orchestra, and chorus. This Aida was mediocre by comparison – win some, lose some – does it always have to be like that?

THREE SYMPHONIES

Myaskovsky, Copland and Liszt

Thats not a bad harvest for the latter half of a single week in London April 29, 30 and May 1, the middle symphony in the Barbican, the other two in the Festival Hall. At the Barbican Antonio Pappano led the London Symphony Orchestra; for the other two Vladimir Jurowsky the Philharmonic, all performances exemplary.

We don’t hear much of Nikolay Myaskovsky’s symphonies; did he flood the market, with twenty-seven of them? I cherish the only one I know, which is number 6 in E flat minor, Opus 23, 1923, particularly for its helter-skelter scherzo (with a slow flute trio of enchantment) and its luscious slow movement. The opening movement is frantically romantic, full of tension and silent gasping pauses; the finale is a bit of a let-down, so desperately jolly as if sucking up to the party bosses; quoting French Revolutionary songs somehow doesn’t help. Jurowsky conducted it as if his life depended on it. It is a long work, its course stated in the programme to be 75 minutes but Jurowsky passed the post at 62.

Copland kept his symphonic tally down to three and the Third Symphony is also long. By 1946 he had established himself as American’s most prominent composer and felt he had to make a statement. He did. It is a fine work yet has elements in it that are overblown, bordering on the portentous. Some of the finest moments are those in which this urban Jewish composer manages to evoke the wide open parts of his continent with widely spaced ethereal high notes, nothing in the middle, supported by a strong bass. The finale is preluded by the Fanfare for the Common Man which became so popular that it/is often played by itself, even used for commercials! Pappano gave it the works. God bless America!

The cliché has it that the Devil always gets the best tunes but in Liszt’s A Faust Symphony in three Characteristic Pictures the Devil steals the tunes of Faust and Gretchen and twists them, mangles them, parodies them in the finale; the first two movements being portraits of Faust and his loved one. Liszt does not tell the story at all, he sketches the characters of all three, except for one episode in Gretchen when the music seems to be saying: “He loves me: he loves me not”.. Sometimes it appears almost as if Liszt is improvising, not at the piano as he was frequently apt to do but on the orchestra. A section comes to an end and the textures pares down to a single line, as if Liszt was wondering what to do next. Sometimes, notably in the symphonic poem Orpheus and in Gretchen, Liszt put aside his virtuoso habits and his devilish complexities and wrote gentle, purely lyrical music. There are some longueurs in the symphony but on the whole the work goes ahead meaningfully and poetically. The melodic material is memorable. And Liszt makes sure that we know the tunes by repeating them again. Faust, the first movement is dramatic, searching and often frantic; Gretchen is graceful, lyrical and as beautiful as Goethe portrays her. Mephistopoles is Allegro vivace, ironico, he has no tunes of his own but transforms the themes of his victims. How to end?

Liszt sums up with an epilogue of almost political correctitude although he calls it a mystical chorus (with tenor solo) proclaiming that “everything is transitory... eternal womanhood leads us on high!! ... das Ewig weibliche!”.

Liszt finished his Faust Symphony in 1857. At the very beginning Faust has a motive that seems to question, with notes of the whole-tone scale, a device that looks to the future of melody and harmony, a pioneering gesture all Liszt’s own. The transformation of themes owes much to the Symphonic Fantastique that Berlioz composed some twenty years earlier.

The symphony was passionately and superbly played. Jurowsky solved the problem of the final by employing an eighty-strong chorus. Too often the final chorus is sung by a small body so that the performance ends in anti-climax. Not so here; Liszt’s symphony ended powerfully.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

FERRIER AWARDS 2010

Somehow the Wigmore Hall atmosphere is always sympathatic during the annual Ferrier Awards, people come every year and there is friendly support for the singers. The date of the finals was 23 April and the winner was the South African baritone, Njubulo Madlala (28). His voice was the only one of the six contestants that sounded mature with all the registers balanced and he made a warm sound. His programme was chosen wisely to display what he could do best.

A Bellini aria was followed by Butterworth’s song on Bredon Hill, Schumann’s Lied Balsazar, a folksong from the kraal and a passionately warm aria from Leoncavallo’s Zaza (good idea to sing music that the judges might not be too familiar with). His musicianship was impeccable and he didn’t make the mistake that other contestants had made, of singing too loud, and he had ‘the gift to be simple’. He was a winner whose name is worthy to be placed alongside previous winners, who include some of the finest singers of recent times.

Madlala was awarded £10,000; the second prize, half that sum, went to Dubliner Sarah Power with a voice not quite mature but with enough purity and style to win through (though she should beware of a shrill edge to her tone, probably caused by nerves). Bellini again, a bit of Stravinsky’s Rake, R. Strauss and a delightful children’s song by Poulenc with the voice and piano in chattering unison. Anna Cordona her excellent pianist (she won the accompanist’s prize of £3000). I was sorry that the Australian baritone Duncan Rock did not win anything but a lot of sympathy from the audience; he has a good voice and dramatic sense, strong to the point of occasionally hectoring.

To complete the honours: the Song Prize of £4000 went to Manchester soprano Laurie Ashworth with her Strauss, Purcell, Jonathan Dove, Mozart and Je suis Titania from Mignon.

The judges included three eminent singers: Della Jones, Felicity Palmer and Sandy Oliver, pianist Roger Vignoles and administrator Gavin Henderson.

Monday, April 26, 2010

ROSSINI’S TURKISH DELIGHT

Prodigies? Well, there’s Mozart of course, Mendelssohn challenging Shakespeare, Saint-Saéns with 32 sonatas under his pianistic belt, the infant Yehudi and the brilliant young Dimitri’s first symphony; but then what about the kid from Pesaro not yet had his 5th birthday (Leap Year Baby), already producing his 13th opera and he’s only 21? Ferrara, Milan and Venice had staged numbers one to twelve and here in Milan comes Turco in Italia in 1811, the year Napoleon abdicated, two years before the Barber arrive.

This is a revival five years on of Turco in the Royal Opera House (April 19). The production by Moshe Laiser and Patrise Caurier is lively, imaginative, witty and effective, excellent pit direction by Maurizio Benini.

Rossini called it a dramma buffo. A randy Turk, his old girlfriend, a nifty new Italian pick-up, her ancient husband, a tenor rival and a Poet manipulating the situation as grist for an opera libretto he wants to write. This Poet is a bit of a throw – back to Don Alfonso, a connection with Cosi fan tutte that Rossini and his new librettist Romani allude to. Like Cosi, Turco was a moral feather ruffler, I say!., married woman having it off with an infidel. Tut, tut.

Rossini was a cool cat, more interested in situations than characters but he knew how to cater for his cast and their strengths. The plot bristles farcically, twisting wittily. The music is not Rossini’s finest vintage, there are no melodies to go home with, but the score is tuneful, elegant, merry and professional to a degree, abundant with tricks, sorties, sallies and clichés of the period, formulae which are justified in a winning way. Patter and coloratura (several notes to one vowel) provide pegs for slick singing which it gets nicely here.

Tom (he insists on Sir Thomas) Allen is in brilliant form as the Poet, more Italian than any Italian, up to the mark, down to the wire. But the character who brings down the house is Geronimo, Alessandro Corbelli, a droll to cherish, a baritone to admire. Aleksandra Kurzak, Polish soprano, is his wife, Fiorilla, she has the lioness’ share of the notes with an attractive, athletic voice, stratospheric notes a speciality and she fits the flighty bill. The Turk is glamorous and excellent, Ildebrando d’Arcangelo and no archangel when it comes to speed courting. The outsider Narciso is a tenor to watch, fluent, mellifluous and South African, Colin Lee by name. Zaida who gets the Turk in the end completes the cast successfully, performed by Leah-Marian Jones (she’s Welsh, would you believe it?.)

A happy evening.

VARÈSE

Still a Modern Pioneer

Of famous composers only Webern left fewer compositions, just twelve, all played during a mini-festival devoted to Edgard Varèse 1883 – 1965. He was born in France, studied with Roussel, d’Indy and Widor. All his early works were destroyed in a fire probably during WW1. In 1915 he went to America, remaining there the rest of his life. He made his conducting début with the vast Requiem of Berlioz.

His music is still startlingly original, strings rarely used in favour of brass and loads of percussion. He writes little that could be called melody, or harmony; his rhythms can suggest a sort of counterpoint, layer above layer. He referred to his works, not as music, but ‘the organization of sound’.

Varèse had few performers and he had lengthy periods of depression but he was sustained by the friendship and support of many visual artists such as Picasso and Giacometti as well as composers like Busoni, Debussy and Schoenberg (though he no truck with serialism). Latterly he excited the interest of Boulez, Cage, Stockhausen, Frank Zappa and Charlie Parker. His music looked always to the future, he was one of the first to use tapes and electronics; enthusiasm for the new was part of his personality.

His works have interesting titles (fancy?) such as Octandra, Hyperprism, Equatorial and Ionisation. The festival (April 16 and 18 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall) opened with the latter piece whose title is explained: ‘the disassociation of electrons from the nucleus of their atom and their transformation into negative or positive ions’ – not exactly non-fluting! The performance were convincingly played and conducted by David Atherton with the London Sinfonietta. Tapes were used and video, devised by Pippa Nissen, on three screens – landscapes, cloud-scapes, moonscapes, Mars-scapes although we were once brought down to earth by a hand putting powder into a glass. Some of the works were sung well by the soprano Elizabeth Atherton, the Sinfonietta Chorus and, sportingly we all thought, by John Tomlinson, authors Huidobro, Tablada, Verlaine and chants from the Mayan.

Was there a downside to all this startlingly original pioneer music, composed at much the same time as the work of those other pioneers, Charles Ruggles and Charles Ives? Most of the audience seemed to think otherwise, applauding vigorously throughout, But some of us found that the ear gets as tired as the brain with works that seem to have no logic, no intimation of climaxes or summation. In the thirties it might have been labeled by the acronym ODTAA – One Damn Thing After Another; rumble-rumble-bang-crash-wallop. Sometimes there were sequences, sometimes beautiful incantatory solos; Varèse can do pianissimo but more often the noise level was extremely high. The first ten minutes were more enjoyable than the last. But there is no doubt that Varèse at his best had a kind of magic. His work has been described as ‘music in the pure state’. ‘tornadoes of sound’ and ‘a nightmare dreamed by giants’. There are designs in the piece for producing grief and anxiety but none for drama. Varèse often thought of his work to be parallel to crystals: “In spite of their limited variety of internal structure, the external forms of crystal are almost limitless.” Just so.

Varèse was without doubt a great original but for the average concert-goer he needs to be taken in small doses.