Monday, November 29, 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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.