Tuesday, September 21, 2010


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


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.


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.