Friday, December 31, 2010


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.


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.


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.


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!


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”?


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.


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.