Friday, December 16, 2011


200 Alleynians lustily singing the Gershwin indestructible tunes of Porgy and Bess was thrilling, heart-warming and mind-blowing. No doubt that Gershwin is up there with the great composers. It is a miracle how a Jewish New York boy could conjure up the spirit of the negro world; and make something universal with his music.

We must be grateful to Ed Lojeski for his arrangement even if the opening and the bits between the six numbers are crumbly. The deployment of the voices on the platform and the multitudes in the galleries worked extremely well. Dr. Carnelly stirred the mixture most effectively.

I generally find that adolescents cope better with romantic and twentieth century scores than those of the eighteenth century because Mozart and Haydn need style which grown-ups handle better – adolescents take to Mahler and Shostakovich more easily… or Gershwin. But I found I was wrong because Lesley Larkum got the boys to play idiomatically correctly in the performance of the Mozart Divertimento (there were even some pianissimi in K.138) and the first movement of the Piano Concerto in A, K. 414, which was most elegantly played by Lewis Lloyd. He made beautiful sounds and music… and later proved his versatility by joining the bassoons in the second half. He's a cool and talented Head Boy is Lewis.

Richard Mayo launched the evening with Elgar's once popular, now rarely played, Imperial March, a piece that shows some familiar composing footprints even if Elgar had not quite got into his stride by 1897. Michael Deniran produced good tone in Beethoven's Romance even if his intonation was somewhat shaky – nerves, I would guess.

So, we have to say goodbye to Barbara Lake which is sad, but she marked her departure in fine style. The Wind Band responded enthusiastically in two New York numbers: Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (which is evergreen) and Nigel Hess's Brit view of the American capital, the playing was suitably tangy and a bit brash. Sebastian Chong took a little time to warm up at the piano, the opening lacked continuity (not helped by some rough riffs from the clarinet) but thereafter he gave full measure to Gershwin's masterpieces of an evocation of the twenties. Wonderful tunes even though, as usual in his symphonic works, he found difficulty in wrapping up his sublime melodies and inventive passage work.

Dear present-day Alleynians, I wonder if you realise how fortunate you are at Dulwich with such a lot of music going on under the supervision of Richard Mayo. I was at the college wayback, from 1935 to 1939. True, there was an orchestra of sorts and a choir but music was low in the priorities: there was only half a director of music because Mr. Gayford was also in charge of History. Whereas now you have two orchestras, choirs large and small, a jazz band, instrument facilities and really capable teachers.

Out in the wide world there is recession and financial mayhem but down in SE21 you have an enviable enclave of music making. Boys, you may not continue your musical activities later in life but the discipline of singing and playing instruments, the joy of music, will undoubtedly improve your lives and will to a greater or lesser degree, affect you when you leave Dulwich.


Alice Sara Ott gave a piano recital on November 22 in Queen Elizabeth Hall. There was nothing unusual about the programme: Mozart late variations (Dupont, K575), an early Beethoven Sonata (opus 2/3), a handful of Chopin Waltzes and the last of the Transcendental Studies by Liszt and his Rigoletto Paraphrase. But the playing was.

Edwin Fischer once wrote that performers "made their greatest impact when they played not in accordance with an interpretation thoughtout beforehand but when they surrendered to the sway of their imagination". That was the crucial quality of Ott's performance. How did she acquire such mastery in her twenty-three years? Her technique was never in question, it was perfect, and what is more, she made beautiful sonorities. Her technique was used as a springboard towards making significant music. And in the second half of her short programme she transported us to a higher plane.

During my long life I have heard Gieseking, Cortot, Lipatti, Horowitz, Richter, Michelangeli, Schnabel, Brendel, Lupu, Perahia and many other great pianists – added to them now is Alice Sara Ott, no doubt about that.

She is German-Japanese but the programme gave no details of her training. She played the Grieg Concerto at the Proms this year and she has been recorded and contracted by Deutsche Gramofon.

Mozart and Beethoven were both great pianists and played on the same kind of instrument (Beethoven, of course, bust strings right and left; Mozart didn't write down his earliest piano works but fortunately LvB did; no less than fourteen of his first twenty opuses are for the piano. Liszt, as we know, played Chopin's music although Chopin did not return the compliment. Isn't it curious that the majority of Chopin pianists do not play the music of Liszt, and vice versa? It seems that young Alice may be an exception to the rule.

Too often we hear Chopin's Waltzes orchestrated for the ballet but their subtleties are not suited for that medium. This rubato – what Fischer was writing about – was what brought life, colour and understanding to Ott's playing of opus 34 and 64. In Liszt she performed climaxes of passion and intensity.

As well as writing about her playing I must report on the enthusiasm in the audience by this handsome, slim girl in a simple white dress. We would willingly have stayed for more than the pair of encores she gave us; LvB's Für Elise and La Campanella, the former limpid and cantabile, the latter exciting to a degree.

All together this was an exceptional experience which quite broke through any critical reserve that I usually have. Alice Sara Ott is already the mistress of her art and if she continues to play like this she will give future audiences the greatest pleasure.


Having been a music critic for more than sixty years perhaps it is time to spill a bean or two. My first bean is dated 1951 when I was not only London Music Critic of the Scotsman but also organiser secretary of the IMA, International Musicians , which had association premises including a restaurant, in South Audley Street. I organised a 85th birthday luncheon for Ernest Newman (S.Times, articles mostly about Wagner). Acceptances came rolling in, but many of them gave evidence of old emnities: "don't put me next to Eric Blom (Observer); don't put me next to Cardus (Guardian)." A good number turned up but not Richard Capell (Telegraph); he developed a sudden funeral on the day.

Back in the forties Frank Howes (Times) and Capell were like Canutes trying to stem the tide of modernism. Stravinsky and Bortok were anathema. But both papers occasionally accepted crits from temporary stringers, usually from events abroad. Walter Lagge wrote some pithy pieces for the Guardian, William Glock for the Telegraph including a review of the first European performance, in Berlin, of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms in 1930. Glock sent a rave notice but Canute Capell inserted negatives in front of William's words of praise. Later William was an excellent Music Critic of the Observer. That was until his editor, Ivor Brown, warned him: one more article about Britten, Tippett, Bartok and co, and I'll fire you. Next Sunday another piece about Bartok appeared and William was sacked.

Capell (1885 – 1954) had been a WWI correspondent, in 1928 wrote a classic on Schubert's Songs. At some point he had a stroke so that his face was lop-sided (we called him 'mad Caesar') His reviews confirmed that he was sick of the nightly grind, he never stayed to the end, couldn't get back to the card-table in his club soon enough.

Frank Howes had spent thirty-five years on the Times and was showing signs of weariness, his articles conscientious but predictable. Worthy books about RVW and Walton, good committee man, quasi elder statesman, wore sandals, chairman of the English Folk Dance & Song Society. After the Albert Hall UK premiere of Britten's entertaining Scottish Ballad I found myself walking across the park with Frank. He was angry. After ten minutes: "Just tell me, Amis, can this fellow Britten be serious?". Generation gap?

A couple of years after he had retired I met Frank one evening at Covent Garden: "Hello, Frank, nice to see you. We miss you, you know. "Yes, but I'll bet you don't miss my opinions." His successor on the Old Thunderer was William Mann who like many of younger generation of critics, went the other way, hooraying every novelty, regardless of quality. Bill's most quoted dictum was that the Beatles' songs were the best since Schubert.

Scott Goddard (News Chronicle) was sympathetic to the younger composers, and political events like the Aldermaston March. His paper gave him scant space so that he could only report, not comment. His copy was difficult to parse. He was not easy to befriend, not happy with his homosexuality, twitchy and, as was said of Mozart, "as touchy as gunpowder".

The American Cecil ( to be pronounced Ceecil) Smith and his successor Noël Goodwin were likewise kept short of space by the Express although that often seemed ok in Noël 's case. I remember one time during a Cheltenham Festival some of us lads went on a hike, ending up in a pub where Bill Mann sat down at an upright and quizzed us. It was embarrassing that Noël couldn't answer a single question. Enter the landlord with a tray of glasses, starting to quiz us about wine. We were all hopeless, couldn't tell claret from burgundy. All of us except Noël who guessed correctly every time, even one or two vintages. Was he in the wrong job, we wondered?

Noël was also successful with the opposite sex; married to a Bluebell dancer but at every concert or opera he had a fresh snazzy popsy in tow.

Martin Cooper (Telegraph) looked like a retired military man, moustache, bow tie, dogtooth tweed, catholic, dapper, French music a speciality, would never meet performers which I thought a mistake as he was therefore out of touch with the problems entailed in being an artist. It seemed like a divine retribution that his daughter Imogen became a professional, superb pianist, as we know.

Neville Cardus (1885 – 1975), many years on the (Manchester) Guardian, liked you to know that he was also something of an intellectual, larding his copy with quotes from Montaigne or de Quincy, sometimes poncey, one of his books begining "There was a sequestered purlieu…" when he could have just written "There was a park…" But Cardus also had great qualities. Uniquely, he gave you an impression of what it was like to be at the event he is writting about. I found his books move valuable that his reviews (of both music and cricket). My present day colleagues would do well to read in Conservations with Cardus what he says about writing criticism, that reviews should aspire to match the style and quality of the work of art under review.

Sometimes I used to sit with him at Lords in a little triangle of turf (a purlieu?) near the Tavern. While the spinners were on, we chatted. When the fast merchants were bowling we wrote. He was a better talker than listener. One time he was saying "Der Rosen…." when I managed to get a word in edgeways. When I had said my piece he continued "kavalier".

I found his views on life, music, even religion very sympathetic (which means I agreed with him). But he expressed them better than I ever could. Atheists both, we agreed that when we heard great music, we could believe in the Divine.


To Parson's Green, SW6, to talk to my favourite baritone, not only mine but everybody's who has had the luck to hear him. His is not the Hans Sachs variety of deeper baritone but the higher one, the type that sings Figaro (Rossini and Mozart), Beckmesser, Eugène Onegin, Pelléas, Papageno, Billy Budd and other roles. The wonderful thing about Sir Thomas Allen is that he made all these roles his own, for his forte is to probe deeply into the characters of these roles, he utterly convinces you that he IS Don Giovanni or whoever he has sung during his long career. His voice is still in good nick but at sixty-seven he has moved on to slightly less taxing roles, moreover he now produces as well as sings character parts (Don Pasquale soon in Chicago). He has the stagecraft and personality so that he can stand still, make no gestures and yet you cannot take your eyes off him. This was a gift he employed in that crucial but difficult role of Don Giovanni, who must be so charismatic that he has seduced hundreds of girls yet he is a murderer and a rogue. He played the role first at Glyndebourne and I was amazed to find that at later productions he did not add to his gestures and stage business but pared them down, subtracting, not adding. He is that sort of artist. He observes people wherever he goes in different countries.

Recently he played in Donizetti's Turco in Italia a character that seemed more Eyetye than any Italian you'd ever seen, follow by playing in the same composer's La Fille du régiment a Frenchman more Frog than any Gaul ever encountered. Mind you, no jambon, no prosciutto.

His voice can be noble, honeyed and everything in between, his musicianship impeccable. Tom is quite tall, imposing with the big features necessary to an actor or singer, both of which he so notably is. He did a stint in the chorus at Glyndebourne and made his debut with Welsh National as Rossini's Figaro. Soon he graduated to the Royal Opera House; at Covent Garden he has sung fifty roles in thirty-five years. He is at home there but he has made lengthy associations elsewhere, twenty-five years at the Met and likewise with Munich Opera where he was recently singing what he reckoned must be close to his 300th Don Alfonso in Cosi fan tutte.

Stagework is only the three-quarters of it; he sings concerts with orchestras and is a consummate recitalist, singing in French (a connoisseurs delight), German, Italian, Czech and Russian. He also sings ballads and the like; his CD he calls Songs my Father Taught me, with titles like Until and BecauseAuch kleine dinge! Soon he will be off to Moscow to sing Oktavian's father, Faninal, in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, a fussy little nouveau riche.

Thomas Allen was born in NE England and he has said: "the very fact that I came from Durham, the coal dust or something, is very much ingrained in me. I don't think I'll ever shake it off, nor do I want to. Its part and parcel of the way I can make my work valid." So he was vastly chuffed to be asked to be Chancellor of Durham University, an appointment he takes up (took up?) in January 2012. He is good company, friendly, no side, funny, voluble, loves boats, machinery, biographies and gardening. He has children, is happily married to beautiful South African Jeanie and they travel together most of the year to wherever Tom is singing, producing or, now, Chancelloring.

He graduated from master-classes to producing. He likes working with young people, passing on wisdom from his long experience. He doesn't like the tendency of present day producers for updates and 'concepts' where what librettists and composers have laid down is ignored.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


Onegin at the Coliseum

Eugeny/Eugene Onègin stands out amongst the operas of Tchaikovsky; none of the others have so securely captured the hearts and minds of audiences. Surely Fate drew him to Pushkin's verse-novel because of the parallel between its story and an event in the composer's own life: a letter declaring love from a young woman. In the opera the recipient rejects her; in life the composer, homosexual though he was, married her. With disastrous result in real life, and a near one in the opera.

Deborah Warner is the director of the new production of the work given for the first time by ENO in the Coliseum on November 12. Onegin is, in any ways, an intimate piece but Warner obviously likes plenty of people onstage; so there were hordes at every opportunity, sometimes to the point of distraction. Tom Pye's handsome set for scene one has in the background of the home of Madame Larins and her daughters Olga and Tatyana a barn with a vast wooden door leading to a foreground big space, not exactly a room but an area that houses farm implements – Tatyana sleeps here, apparently denied a bedroom. workers mill round ceaselessly, making it difficult to focus, for example, on Lensky's lovely song, sung eloquently by Toby Spence. There must have been close to a hundred in the two ballroom scenes, surely not necessary …and expensive.

In Castor and Pollux the previous evening in the same theatre we had three principals whose singing was exemplary: pure streams of tone, untainted by wobbles or inaccurate pitch. But the South African soprano Amanda Echalaz seemed to possess none of these should be requisites of a singer. Her Tatyana looked good and acted well, particularly in the heart-breaking final scene when she affirms that she still loves Onegin, but nevertheless, rejects him. Onegin himself was sung by the Norwegian baritone, Audun Iversen, short on stage presence, long in singing. The minor characters all performed well, suitably directed by Deborah Warner. Chorus and orchestra were tiptop under Edward Gardner so that, with impressive sets and, above all, the masterpiece that is Tchaikovsky's, a (fairly) good evening was had by all.

Tchaikovsky wrote: when I am composing an opera, it means (1) I must not see a soul during certain hours of the day and I must know that no one can see or hear me: I have a habit, when composing, of singing very loud and the thought that someone could hear me disturbs me very much. (2) A grand piano is at my disposal near me, i.e. in my bedroom – without which I cannot write, at least not easily and peacefully.

But to a lady who enquired how Tchaikovsky composed he answered: "Sitting down."


On October 24 the English Opera Company at the Coliseum ventured for the first time into the world of French baroque opera with a run of Rameau's 'tragédie lyrique en musique' – the performance under review was on November 11.

Rameau was born in 1683 and was thus a contemporary of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti; his career was unusual in that for the first half-century of it he composed harpsichord music but was also known throughout Europe as a theorist; but then until he died in 1784 he composed operas, a couple of dozen. Castor and Pollux are brothers, the first a mortal, the other a god and this is a story of sacrifices entailing death, a visit to the underworld, two loved ones and desolation for the woman that love the brothers. At the time of the premiere in Paris in 1737 works like this included dancing; this aspect of the work is included in the music but although the chorus move around there is no actual ballet.

Vocally and musically this performance is outstanding with three magnificent singers, Castor – tenor Allan Clayton, Pollux the god, Roderick Williams, baritone, and Télaire who loves Castor but is betrothed to Pollux – the soprano Sophie Beavan. All three sing and act marvellously and their performance includes vigorous action, fighting and running round the stage, also covering themselves with earth to symbolize visiting the underworld.

The set is like a wooden box, seemingly plywood, with extra partition walls that reveal and conceal.

The music is full of boundless vitality, ingenuity, enchanting orchestration, quirky to a degree, ingenious, passionate and unpredictable; Rameau is part of the line of French eccentrics such as Berlioz, Roussel and Satie. Christopher Curmyn deserves the highest praise for his direction and command of the orchestra which copes with the elaborate decorations in the music. The band, by the way, is raised from the pit so that it is visible – and more audible than usual.

The production is by Barrie Kosky, an Australian who now lives in Berlin and is about to direct that capital's Comische Opera (co-producer of this opera). My colleague in The Spectator advised his readers to shut its eyes to this show, only listen. But I found that the drama is well projected despite all the running about and several scenes that merit an X certificate. Kosky seems to have a thing about underwear: how many pairs of panties did Télaire peel off? We wondered if the production had moved to Knickeragua, were the cast going to sing pubic airs? And did the chorus receive a bonus for revealing its all?

However, nobody seemed to object aloud and the audience seemed delighted with Rameau's endless stream of melody, expressed in marvellous vocal and orchestral sounds.

Wexford Operas


The Wexford Opera Festival has since 1951 been famous for its championing of works rare and neglected. It was started and maintained by the anaesthetist of the local hospital, Dr. Tom Walsh, of whom it was said that he woke the town up at Hallow'een time, having put it to sleep for the rest of the year. A gift from the muses was the discovery in a side street of the city, a Georgian theatre.

At first the local population provided onstage performers and backstage helpers, shifting scenery, making costumes and props, a touch provincial in this south-east corner of the Irish Republic. Nowadays the festival is fully professional and two of the productions this sixtieth year were as fine as could be seen anywhere.

In 1952 with L'Elisir d'amore began Wexford's championship of Donizetti; this year the tally has notched up no less than fifteen operas of the Bergamo master. Gianni di Parigi, for some reason, failed when it was first produced at La Scala, Milan. There seems to be no good reason why it failed, because it is as entertaining and audience-friendly as any Donizetti comedy, no hit numbers but providing a thoroughly enjoyable experience, especially when performed so expertly and given a lively staging as here. There are six good, meaty parts for the performers.

The scene is a country inn where the Princess of Navarra is expected on her way to Paris where she is to marry the Dauphin whom she has not so far encountered. But, wouldn't you have guessed it? He is already here masquerading as Gianni, bribing his way, commandeering all the accommodation and the victuals. She arrives, they fall for each other, and they dine together. End of story line.

The best scene and music occurs in a sequence for three men: the sparky Dauphin (fluent, rather metallic-voice tenor from Uruguay, Edgardo Rocha), Pedrigo, the hotelier, bass, great performer Alessandro Spina, and the Princess' steward, baritone, Alessandro Luongo. The Princess was the delight Czech soprano, Zuzana Markova the page Olivero Lucia Cirillo, mezzo, Lorezza, innkeeper's daughter, soprano, Irish singer Fione Murphy. Good conductor, Giacomo Sagraranti (holy pants?), good, likewise chorus and orchestra.

Amroise Thomas's La cour de Célimène has not been staged, we are told, since its first run in 1855 and maybe the reason for that demise was that at the time the Opéra Comique in Paris was the place where engaged or newly marrieds went for suitable entertainment. Which La Cour was not, for JB Rosier's libretto is cynical and concerns Célimène, so attractive a widow that she has a dozen suitors who have enchanting music to sing, plus two principal suitors, a young besotted Chevalier (tenor Luigi Boccia) and an older Commander who is wooing for gain, Irish baritone John Molloy. Célimène was also Irish, Claudia Boyle, brilliantly full of flounces, mischief, vocal curlicues and colorature; her sister, the Baroness, soprano, American Nathale Paulin, is also mischievous. The Spanish conductor, Carlos Izcaray, certainly knew his onions so that a good time was had by all with this frothy farce which is as French as camembert, Gauloises or Chanel. The set by Paul Edwards was superb, evergreen arches which sprouted mirror doors in the second act. The production was deft, witty and apt – by the Stephen Barlow who has no time to be the conductor of the same name.

But the third opera was a flop. Maria by a little known Polish composer, Roman Skatkowski (1855 – 1925). It proved to be a cardboard turkey, a few good moments but badly constructed and cliché-ridden: loud minor chords, rushing strings à la Tchaikovsky. After this second opera in the 1906 Skatkowski wisely gave up composing and turned to administration.

The plot concerns a Count Palatine who disapproves of his son's choice of wife and arranges for her murder. Maria does not appear until act two and is soon gone in act three, not regretted by your reviewer since Daria Masiero found it difficult to pitch notes and shrieked in an unseemly way. Her husband was an excellent, very tall tenor, Rafal Bartminski; also good were the Count (Krzysztof Szumanski) and Maria's father (Adam Kruszawski). Enthusiastic and able conducting by Tomasz Tokarczyk. Sung in Polish, not an easy opera to direct with the music's constant stop-and-go's. Alas Michale Galeta's production was also cliché-ridden. A sorry evening, especially after the two other successes.

Next year the Festival runs from 24 October to 4 November; Le roi malgré lui by Chabrier, Francesca da Rimini by Mercadante and A Village Romeo and Juliet by Delius.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011


Malcolm Arnold's 90th birthday was celebrated October 21 – 23 in the Royal Derngate Concert Hall in Northampton, his birthplace. This was the sixth annual festival and the programme included all nine of his symphonies, two on Friday, four on Saturday. Our stick-in-the-mud professional orchestras rarely perform these or any works by Arnold but there are no less than three cycles available on CD.

MA started his career as a golden-toned young trumpeter; was a star in the wartime London Philharmonic. Eduard van Beinum conducted the overture Beckus the Dandipratt and a composer was launched. Bingo! The composer explained that Beckus was a reckless, cheeky urchin …. perhaps without realising that the explanation held good for himself too. There was tenderness in his music but what caught the ears was its exuberance, brilliant scoring of music that buffeted the ears with its plethora of tunes and its joie de vivre. He exploited the highs and lows of sound and was economical with the middle, more congested middle range. He boasted "I have never used a cor anglais in my life".

A most welcome feature of this festival was that all but one of the orchestras were amateur: the Cambridge Symphony, the Slaithwaite Philharmonic, the University of London Symphony, and orchestras from Hull and East Riding (Youth). Never did one find any short comings; Arnold's music is difficult to play; he stretches his players but rewards them also. The names of the conductors were unknown to me but they all came up trumps.

Here are some notes on the symphonies: No.1 (1948) was clearly influenced by Shostakovich's symphonies 2,3, & 4, cocking snooks, it almost bullies its audience – note the characteristic silences and space in the score; No. 2 (1953) is a successful, integrated work, a joy to hear; 3 (1957) is, by contrast, a bit thick and convoluted, not ingratiating – during its composition MA wrote the first 25 of his 113 film score, including the first of the St.Trinians set and Bridge on the River Kwai; 55 minutes of music that took 10 days to write, 16 hours a day but Oscar winning; after completion MA would roister in gargantuan – Rabelaisian fashion with an excess of food, drink and girls, scattering £50 notes to drivers, waiters and so on No. 4 (1950) showed contempt for the Establishment and the critics by including bongos and a pop tune in the opening allegro, kitchy but entertaining; No.5 (1961) has super kitch, a love theme in the slow movement that out Mahlers Mahler and is followed by a little masterpiece of a scherzo that is the essence of Arnold; No.6 (1965) shows the composer's mind disintegrating with obsessive gestures that are alienating rather than entertaining, long notes likes fireworks that eventually explode, brutal brass forays and deafening percussive onslaughts; No. 7 (1973) is sombre and gritty but suddenly relaxes at the end into hommage to the countryside near Dublin where MA was living with his second wife, music that is bog – and jig-Irish; No. 8 (1979) seems to be keeping mental instability at bay, to behave like an agreeable symphony that everybody can enjoy.

No.9 (1986) is the saddest music I know, the creative spirit of a composer totally absent. Conductors and publishers turned it down initially and I only wish the work were forgotten. It reminds me of the final scene of Kubrick's Odyssey film with a man sitting in a chair doing nothing for an inordinate length of time. As a friend and admirer of Malcolm Arnold for half a century I can only listen to it with extreme anguish. Since I couldn't face it in Northampton I fled.

Opera Flicks

Do you live near a cinema that shows the New York Metropolitan opera performances? They are £25 a go and worth your consideration. I saw Walküre last June in Aldeburgh and Don Giovanni at the Chelsea Curzon on October 29.

The films are advertised as HD but the sound reproduction in Suffolk was 'low' rather than 'hi-fi', loud and distorted; at Chelsea, much better, but still with some distortion – females rather shrill, males satisfactory but still so loud that some neighbours had their hands over their ears at times.

The main advantage is seeing the faces and expressions of the singers instead of the pinhead Lilliputian images if one sits at any distance from the stage. And in the cinema subtitles are legible whereas in the opera house they can be difficult to see.

This Don was a premiere of a production by our own Michael Grandage from the Donmar, sensible though not old fashioned, no surprises or horrors, no updates. Christopher Oram's set began with a multi-floored grid of room like spaces that often gave way to a full stage, same designer's handsome costumes.

The cast was good-looking and good-singing. Ottavio (Ramon Vargas) was less of a wimp than usual and his singing was pleasing. Majca Erdmann was a delightful Zerlina in every way. Marius was a convincing Don, a pity his Leporello was a head taller, Lep (Luca Pisaroni) a very fine likeable character and singer. Anna and Elvira were both very good (Marina Rebeka and Barbara Frittoli) in spite of the mikes not being kind to their voices. There seems to be at present a world shortage of real basses: Stefan Kocan's Commendatore needed more resonant low notes. Fabio Luisi's conducting was first-class.

In time it is likely that all cinemas will have good sound and then these cinema operas will be even more worthwhile than at present (mind you, I've only been to two so far). Here are some names and dates in case you want to venture: Götterdämerung – 11 February, Ernani – 25 February, Manon – 7 April, Traviata – 14 April.

Monday, October 24, 2011


But one that did not contain a note of any of the Strauss family and began with Johann Sebastian Bach! However, it did contain two numbers by Josef Lanner, a precursor of the waltz, a composer whose work we hear about more than whose music we actually hear: one piece called Die Werber (The Suitors) and another called Die Romantiker, charming, well-wrought numbers though without that extra spark that the Strausses have.

This was a concert given by the world-Class Australian Chamber Orchestra but without it's musical director, Richard Tognetti, who was sorting out musical affairs in Slovenia, in his place was Benjamin Schmid as director and violin soloist, a very good substitute, so that the Double Violin Concerto by the old Leipzig Protestant wrought it's usual spell with the ACO's live- in second violin, Helena Rathbone, to assist him.

After that beginning all was Viennese, starting with a religious lento for strings composed in 1947 by Korngold on his return from his Hollywood triumphs, alas, a rather charmless, stodgy number. H.K.Gruber's Violin Concerto Nebelste in (1988) was not more entertaining either. Every violin phrase seemed determinedly to contain notes on all four strings with so many pizzicatos that one remembered Mum's warning : it'll never get well, if you pick it'. Not so much Nebelstein, perhaps, as Eine kleine nicht Musik. After the interval, we were soothed by the ingratiating A major Rondo by Schubert. The evening ended with the Viennese version of 'A Knees-up: Wien bleibt Krk' (sic) attributed to the Dutch composer, Georg Breinschmid (born 1973) incorporating elements of Viennese sounds but also the sort of music that the city might have heard when the infidels were last at the gates, 7/4 rhythms and gypsy roulades.

The ACO seemed to enjoy the company, musicianship and playing of their Erstwhllelleader, Benjamin Schmid as much as the Melbourne audience in the Old Town Hall did.


Friday, August 26, 2011


Which composer would be more insulted by the suggestion that Donizetti was the Lloyd Webber of his day? For in 1840s the Italian composer had no less than four operas running simultaneously in Paris. Berlioz was not the only French composer to complain bitterly.

In 1843 the success of the Don was the crowning success of Donizetti's career, his sixty-eighth opera. There were only two more to come, for his mental and physical health deteriorated rapidly; he died in '48 at the early age of fifty. He must have been a workaholic because for long periods he composed an average of five operas a year.

His reputation has suffered somewhat by comparison with Rossini and Verdi, some think undeservedly, for he was a master of both the comic and tragic genres; of form, dramatic pace and melody. Your Hundred Best Tunes surely contains a plethora and melody, at least a dozen, in Don Pasquale.

So it was good that Opera Holland Park opened its 2011 season with the Don, a season that will continue with chestnuts Figaro and Rigoletto but, as usual for this house, also some out of the way works: Puccini's La Rondine, Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz and, wow!, Catalani's La Wally. Enterprising indeed.

Don Pasquale was in good hands; in the pit Richard Bonynge, lively and well-paced in the pit with the City of London Sinfonia; and on the stage in the title-role Donald Maxwell, ever the consummate professional, master of comic timing, character portrayal and fine singing. This is the familiar plot of an old duffer who marries a placid young girl who turns harridan as soon as the marriage contract is signed. In this opera Norina is by no means the demure nun she seems but a schemer who wants to marry the duffer's nephew – a tenor, wouldn't you know it? That fine soprano from Cork, Majella Cullagh, showed a lovely voice, a burly chassis, a sure handling of vocal pyrotechnics and she fizzed like a dose of Eno's.

South African tenor Colin Lee, was in fine form as lover Ernesto and Richard Burkhard shone likewise as the Don's pal Dr. Malatesta, a party to the fake nun plot.

In spite of being sung in Italian, the general atmosphere of Stephen Barlow's bright production was that of an old-fashioned pantomime but a good time was had by all.

Holland Park's stage is wide but shallow and there is no pit, the band is on the flat; and there are no side walls in the auditorium so if the evening is chilly, take a rug.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


The scene is a big, high, bricked, L-shaped space. The printed programme doesn't give the venue a name it but it is in the middle of Shoreditch and it could once have been part of the Underground. Word of mouth brought a packed audience for Vignette Productions La Boheme. Each of the first three acts will take place in a different position (turn your seat around).

The garette is exceedingly scruffy: filing cabinets, naked light bulbs, a bike, a tin bath, radio sets.. a sofa, lots of wiring. The text is written on the walls and contains words like wanker that Giacosa and Illica didn't, the orchestra of just over a dozen plays Jonathan Dove's clever and adequate boiled-down version lovingly and meaningfully conducted by Stephen Moore. Rould and tumble rules, the opera comes across forcefully, directed by Andrew Staples (whose day job is as a tenor - highly praised in these columns for a recital last year in Provence and for the lead in a Barbican performance of Candide earlier this year). Acting convincing, singing, fresh, bright, clear, youthful; particularly good were the Petersburg Mimi, Ilona Domnich, and the Glasgow Rodolfo, Alastair Digges.

This was in your face opera. I sat within inches of the harp and within spitting distance of the horns; an interesting take on Puccini's harmonies and his telling use of the angelic instrument. This was Puccini almost in the raw and it got across in a fresh and vivid way. 1896 music drama, still giving pleasure and provoking, tears in a 2011 setting.


Yes, as you probably heard by now, the owners of Garsington wanted their house back, so the opera had to move and is now operating on the Getty estate near Stokenchurch at Wormsley. Anthony Whitworth-Jones and the whole shooting match are now installed in a new, comfortable opera house (like Holland Park with fresh air at the sides). But the terrain is beautiful and lush, more so than any other country opera place in the U.K. that I know. Take a rug and a scarf. The food is first-class.

And the music/opera performance was up to the best Garsington standard. The work was Rossini's Turco in Italia on June 28, the other operas this year The Magic Flute and Vivaldi's La verita in cimento which does not mean Truth in Cement but Truth put to the Test (a British first performance).

Rossini was all of twenty-two when Turco was performed at La Scala in 1814 but the Milanese down-thumbed it, causing the composer to signify the fact to his mother on a postcard on which he had drawn a fiasco. But it soon turned into a success (a magnum?)

True, Turco does not contain as many hummable tunes as the Barber but it is an opera that works well on the stage, has a good plot (thanks to Romani) and fine music. It is an ensemble piece, therefore there are not many extended solos – but those there are are very effective, especially the heroine Fiorilla's big outburst where comedy turns serious (Rossini was influenced by seeing Cosi fan tutte in Naples) But irony is the name of Rossini's game as often as not. A link with Cosi is also forged by the presence in the cast of the Poet, an Alfonso near relation, who stirs the pudding, almost pointing the way to Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author a century later. Here in Turco we have a doting old husband, a flirtatious wife (Fiorilla) and a pair of exotic lovers: the eponymous Turk and the wife's youthful servant. The cast was consistently commendable, especially Fiorilla – Rebecca Nelson (UK début of a soprano from Texas) and her aged husband Geronino - the wonderful comic, supple-bodied baritone Geoffrey Dalton. The fluent production was by Martin Duncan and the witty sets were by Francis O'Connor. David Parry is a dab hand at anything he conducts. Here with the Garsington Opera Chorus and Orchestra he set the seal on an evening's entertainment that would merit a magnum any day of the week. Bravo, Garsington and congratulations on a successful move!


Massenet's Fairy Story

Jules Massenet held sway in France during the latter half of the nineteenth century, Cendrillion, saw the light of day in Paris in 1899 (its composer had just had his 57th birthday) and before the century was out it was produced in Geneva. Massenet was a good business man and a crowd pleaser, keeping a watchful eye on the fortunes of his operas, even turning up at the Paris Opéra after performances to check the takings.

He would have been chuffed to find that the Royal Opera House was almost sold out for the second performances (July 7) there of his fairy tale opera based on the Perrault story of Cinderella, a co-production with Santa Fe, Barcelona, Brussels and Lille. Cendrillon, as she is called in France, is a four act piece and at Covent Garden the writing is on the wall, not only on the set periphery but also on various little walls trundled onto the middle of the stage. If I had brought my opera-glasses with me I might have been able to read what the texts were about.

The two principal characters are, naturallement, Cendrillon and le prince Charmant, beautifully sung by Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote, both mezzo-sopranos capable of moving to higher regions. This was exquisite singing, no wobbles, lovely line, and two voices blending perfectly. Both good actors. There was also fine singing from the Fairy Godmother, a sort of Queen of the Night mark two in range but without malevolence, the singer rejoicing in the name of Eglise Gutierrez. Jean-Philippe Lafont made rather heavy weather of Pandolfe, Cinders' father but the mother was a super fruity contralto, Ewa Podles. Chorus good and the orchestra directed with surety and style by Bertrand de Billy, a former pianist. The sets were fussy, the costumes rather tediously ranged from scarlet to red. Production was o.k., Laurent Pelly.

The music? Well, not one of Massenet's best. Jog-trot, no particular charm or attraction. Well written, everything in its place, thoroughly professional but nothing to savour. And Massenet doesn't do humour, there were long stretches of boredom.


The programmes at the Aldeburgh Festival this year (June 10 – 26) were noticeably better and more interesting than the previous two. However the planners do not include many of the works of Benjamin Britten. Surely Britten is the raison d'être of the festival – or should be. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, excellent pianist though he is, does not promote Britten's music as he surely should. His three years as director are up this June but t'is said that he may stay on further. Why?

True, we had The Rape of Lucretia (concert performance only) this year, the string quartets and the cello suites plus the Donne Sonnets but is that enough? Many of us think not. And what of 2013, the centenary of Britten's birth?

Aimard's chief performance this year were as pianist in three evenings of Schubert songs with Matthias Goerne at the voice: Die schöne Müllerin, Winterreise and the Schwanegesang topped up by the first song cycle ever, An die ferne Geliebte by Beethoven. Aimard was impeccable but Goerne was not; every forte came near to a bellow; he knows the music, can sing tenderly and quietly but stampedes into the ring too often. Pity, although it was good to hear the music.

One boon these days is that good string quartets are thicker on the ground than they used to be fifty years ago in spite of the medium being so labour intensive and its performers usually underpaid. At Aldeburgh we had three good ones: the Arcanto, Barbirolli and Elias, repertoire ranged from late Haydn to Berg's Lyric Suite and several new works, programmed in the Festival's (successful) effort to get press coverage.

Also new was a commissioned piece from the centenarian Elliott Carter: Conservations, a seven minute orchestral piece with prominent parts for piano (Aimard lui-même) and Colin Currie (rushing madly from xylophone to two marimbas). In the same programme Oliver Knussen – ever reliable and passionately comitted, directed a programme with Birmingham forces (Orchestra and Contemporary Music Group) which began, middled and ended with Stravinsky: Scherzo a la Russe, the Huxley Variations and Petrushka. The Huxley piece and Carter's new piece were, encored, by Knussen rather than the audience, and came into the category of old men's brain games. Also new were Helen Grime's Everyone Sang (brush up your Sassoon) and Charlotte Bray's Violin Concerto Caught in Treetops (brush up your D.G. Rossetti), both composed in contemporary lingua france style (i.e. more intellectual than emotionally significant).

There were interesting side-show: a feature on and in Sizewell, a Caledonia evening – all modes and minor key tunes, very entertaining –and films about or with Mahler, Rostropovich, Steinway pianos and a talk about the brain and music. And there was one superb piano recital: Elizabeth Leonskaya, Russian born, emigrated to Vienna, played the Wanderer Fantasy, two A major sonatas and an Allegretto. In the minor key by Schubert for encore she played the G flat Impromptu; Opus 90. Is there a more ravishingly beautiful piano piece in the world? No wonder Neville Cardus wanted to hear it as he lay dying.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Robert Tear and John Amis 2010

The late Robert Tear, a wonderful tenor, and sad loss to the music world.

Festival 2011

Before Aldeburgh a visit to neighbouring Norfolk, beyond the small town of Beccles , three miles up a dirt road into Toft Monks where is a granary with an auditorium seating 1400 and, on a platform, no less than four massive Steinways, 9 footers with pianists Piers Lane, Kathron Sturrock, Hamish Milne and Danny Driver. Items: Bach Concertos for 3 and 4 pianos, Milhaud's Paris Suite for four, two Grainger numbers ditto, an interesting duet by York Bowen, the Brahms Variations usually labelled on a theme by Haydn and ending up with a Chaminade piece for six hands at one keyboard (don't squeeze me till I 'm yours). The performances were Immaculate, obeying a golden rule: when in doubt, play softer, not louder. How did this clutch of grands happen to congregate? Through the enthusiasm and expertise of the landlord, Andrew Giller, who cares, caretakes, maintains, hires out, tunes and loves pianos.

So to my 63rd Aldeburgh Festival and the actual 64th: it began, not with a whimper but with the loudest noise imaginable: Messiaen's Et expecto resurrectionem for woodwind, brass, and percussion that consists of tom-toms of many sizes and three tam-tams of vast dimension. When the three of them crescendo stretto one really thought the end was nigh; if it had been painted it would be a mixture of John Martin and Piranesi.


Why on earth did Benjamin Britten choose to set Obey's The Rape of Lucretia as his first chamber opera in1947 two years after his world-wide success with Peter Grimes? Was it an attempt to be 'with it' or to prove something? And why, with his sensitivity to literature, did he put up with his friend Ronald Duncan's translation. True, it has some good lines and ideas, but it also has some horrors. "Oatmeal slippers of night" for example. And then there is that coda that rather priggishly tries to add a Christian gloss to a Roman tale. ? A rum go !This was a concert performance put together by the conductor Oliver Knussen which was more powerful than any, including the composer's, that I have heard, its impact only impeded by Knussen placing the cast behind the orchestra for the sake of stronger control; the result, as usual, was less power and fewer words audible. Except that the Male Chorus was allowed a frontal position and was wonderfully and clearly sung by Ian Bostridge. But the whole cast, like the 13 piece band, performed superbly with Angelika Kirchschlager in the title-role and Peter Coleman-Wright as the one who does the title-deed. General critical opinion that takes plot and text into account tends to down-thumb Lucretia but music lovers pure and simple can find much to enjoy: the women's trio as they fold linen, the act one finale of goodnights (how Britten loves to make music out of names ,catch phrases, times of day), Tarquinius' ride with it's ingenious representation of the different rhythms that a horse's hooves make, trotting, cantering, galloping and so on, the lulling to sleep of Lucretia with bass flute, the rape interlude with it's chorale risibly in the same metre as our national anthem and throughout the brilliantly inventive use of the 13-piece chamber orchestra. (all this mid June 2011).

Monday, June 20, 2011

Ravel in Spain and Brum

Maurice Ravel was born within spitting distance of Spain in Ciboure, a seaside village. His mother was a Basque and his Muse frequently crossed the border, slipping into the rhythms of habanera, malaguena, seguidilla or what he originally called a fandango but later changed to Bolero (although it isn't really one). The second half of the concert on 7 June given in its Symphony Hall by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under its young music director, the Latvian Andris Nelsons was devoted to four orchestral numbers: Rapsodie Espagnole, Pavane, Alborada del Gracioso and the aforementioned Bolero which Ravel, its composer, undersold as his 'masterpiece, which unfortunately contains no music'.

Nelsons enjoyed himself enormously, likewise the orchestra and the audience. He really is first-class and the orchestra matches him; bassoons burbling in the Rhapsody, horns fluttering in the Alborada (not quite as good on the orchestra as on the black and white piano), the plaintive bitter-sweet Pavane (better on the orchestra than the piano?) and the Bolero which duly brought the house down.

The first half of the evening consisted of the first of Ravel's operas, L'heures Espagnole (despite its name, it lasts for three quarters of an hour). There are five characters; Concepcion hopes to receive and wind up two of her lovers while her husband, Torquemada, winds up the clocks of Toledo in an official capacity. But there is a fly in the ointment in the shape of a musclely muleteer who has brought in his watch for repair; Torquemada has told him to wait until he returns from his duties. Concepcion solves the problem by getting the muleteer to shift a grandfather clock upstairs to her bedroom. But she has another problem. The young lover is a poet and he spouts his work instead of servicing Concepcion. So up he goes inside a grandfather clock. Number two lover arrives, an old banker whose pendulum is too old to swing. So, like a Feydeau farce, the two non-functional lovers are shipped up and down in clocks until Concepcion asks the muleteer go to the bedroom once more, 'sans horloge'. Bingo!

An initial review in Paris of the 1911 premiere described the opera as 'a pornographic vaudeville.' Why did Ravel, not known ever to have had even the mildest of affaires, compose the piece? Surely because he was attracted by the opportunity to set a witty farce, with a spicy conservational text and the chance of writing a score that could encompass rich orchestral effects such as the sound of many clocks (he loved them and the work opens with the ticking of three of them set at different speeds) and, above all, an ambience of irony, cool, subtle and all pervasive – the very essence of Ravel.

Ravel's music is not difficult; in a way he is a classical composer, not anti-romantic but non-romantic, considering himself an artisan, something like a good architect or jeweller, not a purveyor of personal sentiment. His music is always straightforward, clear and durable.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


Roger Nicholls
Yale, 430 pp

Our foremost expert on French music in general and Ravel in particular, here has written a third book on the composer of Daphnis and Chloe. There was a biography way back in 1977 and a Ravel Remembered ten years later. Much new material has come to light since then. This is the volume to sit on your bookshelf, to be read with great interest and pleasure.

It is well written and tells the reader all he can want to know about Ravel (and thankfully, not more than he needs to know – the besetting sin of so many present day biographers). If it doesn't explain the peculiar charm and strength of Ravel's music, that is because that would be an impossible task. As Mendelssohn said, if you can explain it, it isn't music.

His contemporaries often called him cool but I think they were wrong. Ravel doesn't embrace youth but surely that makes him last longer. And didn't Mozart say that if a composer doesn't entertain, he doesn't get heard?

Ravel is an entertainer, in the fullest sense of the word.

He is neither ethical, not political. Is there such a creator who is both objective and yet deep down a Romantic? He was a consummate artisan capable of making intricate musical jewellery. Knowing Stravinsky's taste, it was surely a compliment that he called Ravel 'the most perfect of Swiss clockmakers'. Actually, in spite of Swiss connections Ravel was French through and through even though the mother he adored was a Basque and came from close to the border with Spain.

Virgil Thomson summed up his friend: "Maurice Ravel was in religion a skeptic, in love a bachelor, in social life a semi-recluse, a suburbanite. He was kind but not foolish, a wit, a devoted friend; his was an adult mind, tender, ironic, cultivated, sharply observant."

Leftish in politics, refusing the Légion d'honneur (although Satie said that all his music accepted (miaow), he was not respecter of persons – as witness his roundly ticking Toscanini off for galloping through Bolero (originally title Fandango, so Nicholls tells us).

Like all famous composers (except Richard Strauss) Ravel was 'vertically challenged', five foot three. And like Gabriel Fauré, he was never without a cigarette in his mouth. Those he travelled with said he was always losing things, tickets, passports, pens. He was quite a useful pianist when young but an indifferent one later on; neither was he a good conductor, strange when he wrote such good piano music, enlarging the scope of keyboard virtuosity.

When I visited his house at Montfort l'Amaury, outside Paris, where he lived latterly I kept hitting my head on the ceiling; it was like a dolls house, built years before he found it, it must have belonged to a dwarf. But it suited the children that he loved so much and was so at home with, both in the flesh and in his music.

Nicholls rehearses fully Ravel's failure, even by the time he was quite well known, to win the Prix de Rome; which was partly his own fault (wouldn't toe the necessary lines) and a national scandal; and how a rivalry was built up with Debussy. Ravel remained above it all but Debussy was sometimes bitchy.

It was a terrible fate that Ravel suffered, gradually losing his ability to compose, finally even to write his name. He was only sixty-two when he died in 1937.

Ravel's music achieved fame during his lifetime for it is the epitomy of every Frenchman's dream and every foreigner's dream of French culture, the dream of perfect unification of sentiment, restrained sensuality, intelligence and superb craftsmanship.

Friday, March 11, 2011

La Stupenda

A vast crowd besieged Westminster Abbey on February 15 for a service of thanksgiving for the life of Dame Joan Sutherland, La Stupenda. Recordings of her singing Let the Bright Seraphim and Casta Diva sounded thrillingly round the Abbey. Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House were there to play us to our seats (amusingly, playing music inspired by operas about prostitutes – Massenet's Thaïs and Verdi's La traviata, the Abbey is broadminded these days). Dame Joan's conductor, mentor and husband Richard Bonynge read a lesson, so did biographer Dame Norma Major. Bonynge had chosen a Sydney soprano, Valda Wilson, as a fine representative of young Australia to provide the only live solo singing in the service. With great courage she sang Pie Jesu from the Requiem by Fauré and Mozart's Alleluia. She sang beautifully and touchingly with a pure tone, bang in tune.

Sir John Tooley, director at Covent Garden for many years where Dame Joan was a star, gave the Address. The Abbey Choir sang, the organ played and the bells pealed for the great Diva whose singing enriched the lives of all who heard her.



Nikolaus Lehndorff's production of Wagner's Tristan, twice at Glyndebourne, was such a highlight, winning prizes galore and showing that a 'conceptual' interpretation could work if it showed sufficient imagination plus respect for the composer and librettists. So this Parsifal, seen at the London Coliseum in 1999 and now again this February and March, comes as a sad disappointment.

Or course, Lehnsdorff does not change the text, but sort of doing that, he has made this Parsifal as unholy as he can. There is no Christian atmosphere. The first scene, in fact most scenes, are of an unremitting greyness, costumes and sets. Initially we see the back a pockmarked wall, within it a huge chunk of fibre-glass (which moves). Scene two reveals what might be a ski-run descent; for the grail there appears a twenty-foot strip of yellow which chez Klingsor becomes orange (not very imaginative).

Kundry appears first looking like a bag lady, second as a big busted would be seductress who sheds her stiff skirt to lie prone on the floor looking like a ladybird that cannot get up off her back; in act three she is clad soberly in penitent's white garb. Parsifal (Stuart Skelton) sang well enough without showing much fire or charisma. Iain Paterson (he should be the main character) he sang well enough (what a mound of self-pity he is!)

But the star of the performance was John Tomlinson. Gurnemanz can often seem like a wittering old bore; not here though. Every word was clear, every note noble and sonorous, every gesture telling, and every inflection meaningful. Sir John is well into his sixties but this was a performance to salute and cherish, one of the great ones!

The choral singing and orchestral playing was more than adequate but less than memorable – Mark Wigglesworth the conductor. But the balance did not permit the off-stage chorus, the boys, to be sufficiently heard.

But oh! what a masterly score it is! How one waits for those grinding modulations towards the end of act one, the strings so meditative and moving in the act three prelude and the Good Friday Music – more seductive than anything chez Klingsor. Incidentally, there was a positive plethora of flower maidens, flipperly dressed as for a Noël Coward 1932 musical comedy. But there was no vocal seduction, the mezzo Kundry (Jane Dutton) was inclined to shrillness and her voice showed a disfiguring beat. A curious feature of the set of act three was a strip of railway track curving off upstage. Was that to show modern thought in the medieval age, a possible reference to Auschwitz or maybe that the whole cast was taking a journey to heaven by Grailway?

Isn't it curious that so many religious masterpieces have been written by composers not especially known for their adherence to the church: Beethoven, Verdi, Janacek, Debussy, Vaughan Williams, and Britten?

Music on the mind

Like most people, I suppose, I get tunes on the brain, usually for a short time. Unusually, however, I have had one tune on the brain for over a year, that beguiling little overture from Masques et Bergamesques by Gabriel Fauré, sometimes quite a bit of the opening paragraph, sometimes pared down to the two-note upbeat. This set me wondering about tunes on the brains in general and I have been reading two fascinating books by the American neurologist, Oliver Sacks, the more known being The Man who mistook his wife for a Hat, the other called Musicaphilia. He writes about all sorts of tunes on the brain, quite a few of which are about cases where the music is so loud and upfront that at first the patients try to source the sound to a radio or a band playing outside the window; before realising that the noise comes from inside their own head. One woman hears three or four Irish songs sounding continuously, songs she hasn't heard since she was an adolescent; other patients have heard music continuously sometimes, works that they have not known.

And some patient's brains have somehow turned into radio stations. In many cases the well-known drug L-dopamine can provide relief.

The only famous name – appearing in both the Sacks books mentioned is that of Dmitri Shostakovich. Sacks quotes an article that appeared in the New York Times (no date given) stating that the composer had somehow got a metal chip embedded in his head. And he is reported to have stated that he did not wish to have the chip removed as, if he inclined his head a certain way, he heard tunes that he could incorporate in his compositions.

Interesting – could it be true?

George Shearing died on February 14 at the age of ninety-one, great pianist, great musician, and great jazz man!

Lennox and Freda

Tony Scotland has written a whopper of a biography of Lennox and Freda (Berkeley of that ilk). What makes it so expansive (575 pp) and expensive (£28) is because Scotland (former BBC Radio Three announcer, partner of Julian Berkeley) has not written only of the composer and his wife Freda but also, copiously, about teachers, colleagues, friends and antecedents. He writes well, sympathetically, critically and guidingly, assessing shrewdly Berkeley's plentiful output of works in many genres, also pointing the way towards good recordings of the many highlights.
A few statistics show the way the biographical wind blows, thus teacher and friend Ravel is mentioned on 30 pages, mentor and friend Nadia Boulanger 70, lover on-and-off Benjamin Britten over 200, friend (also bisexual) James Lees-Milne 30; and there are many pages devoted to Lennox's lovers before he went 'straight'.

The chapters on Freda née Bernstein are shortish until their marriage in 1951 – twenty years his junior. She was pretty, innocent, understanding, Jewish as opposed to Lennox devout (converted) Roman Catholicism – his faith inspired many of his best works. She worked at the BBC as a secretary to Lennox. The story of their gradually entwining lives reads like a cliff-hanger: will he, won't he, and more importantly finally, CAN he? At least she gets him into bed and they begot three lusty boys, Michael, composer and brilliant Private Passions broadcaster, the afore-mentioned Julian, and Nicholas.

For a long time Lennox lacked self-confidence and he was a great ditherer. Domestically he was a duffer (I once had breakfast with him, Laurens van der Post and Desmond Shawe-Taylor on a train. Lennox was utterly flummoxed when confronted with a boiled egg; Desmond had to deal with it for him). Lennox was blessed with youthful good looks, aristocratic, right up to his sixties. Indeed, but for some wrong side of the blanketry on the part of relatives, Lennox might have been a duke living comfortably in a castle, instead of being a modestly wealthy commoner living in Little Venice.

Lennox was a sweet and gentle person and, for all his vacillations, had a good career, producing a large and varied output; he was also a good teacher, adored by his many students at the Royal Academy of Music, pupils as varied as Tavener and Ferneyhough. The marriage was happy and long-lasting although his life ended with a sad loss of mind so complete that he had to be put into care. He died in 1989 at the age of eighty-six, Freda surviving him.

Was he a great composer? Perhaps not quite, but there are many fine works, like the intensely beautiful Four Poems of Tersa of Avila and the marvellous but neglected Stabat Mater. Other excellent and entertaining pieces (not for nothing was he a friend and admirer of Frances Poulenc) are the various concertos for piano(s), the Serenade, the captivating Divertimento, choral pieces and many winning numbers for guitar. The heroic was not for Lennox as he and we realised when his opera Nelson was put on. Berkeley spent a lot of time in France; indeed most of his music seemed to belong to France than England.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Pope's Daughter loves son

Difficult not to raise an eyebrow or two when the name of Lucrezia Borgia comes up, recalling naughty things: "the Borgias are having an orgy to-night", "incest – the game the whole family can play" and the father saying to the mother after the son has been diagnosed as having an Oedipus complex "what does it matter as long as he loves his mother?".

It was the first night of a new production by English National Opera of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia (January 31). The programme book quotes historians who are now saying that this queen of scrapes and rapes became a loving mother in middle-age, a do-gooder who hadn't poisoned anybody for ever so long.

The plot and libretto are full of dotty antics, the composer knew he was on to a hot number, what with a Pope's daughter renowned for being a whore and a murderer. It was Gaetano's forty-sixth opera; when he composed it he was thirty-six years of age, had eleven years more to live with twenty-four more operas to come. In under forty years there were over forty productions world-wide after the successful première at La Scala, Milan.

Does the music rise above rum-ti-tum and the formulas current at that time (1833)? Yes, quite often, in particular, Lucrezia's last gasp aria and the contralto/trouser-role nobleman Orsini's second act Brindisi (one of the only operatic numbers Clara Butt sang, quite brilliantly too!), given in the Coli, well sung by the American mezzo Elizabeth deShong.

The title-role is long dramatic and brimfull of coloratura. Claire Rutter was up to snuff, carried it off superbly but with the occasional rasp. The tenor, little Oedipus-Schmedipus in the old story, sang bravely with good sound; he was also American, Michael Fabiano. With a little more personal sparkle, he could be a world beater.

Mike Figgis, noted film director, in his operatic debut, brought his projector with him, having made half-a-dozen film snippets (different cast) to add footnotes and background to the mores and deplores current in the Vatican. Often beautiful shots, a coupling and some grisly scenes were shown to 'till-readies' in the orchestral pit. Good idea, this, although some of the old operatic hands resented the celluloid intrusion.

Sets (Es Devlin) and costumes (Brigitte Reiffenetual) were lavish and a visual delight – bravo! Paul Daniel conducted a performance full of nuances and vitality. he also made the English version that was sung, o.k. except for a lot of 2011 words like 'crazy' and 'problem' that jarred a bit as Victor Hugo's original play is set in 1498. Orchestra and chorus in good fettle. A good evening, Donizetti lives.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011



Piers Lane is surely at the zenith of his career. The Australian is an artist and a virtuoso as well, provides all the Finger fertigkeit – finger-readiness – that is required but also gets to grip with the meaning of the music he plays, what 'Thomas Mann described as 'the music behind the song'. This was shown especially in his first encore, the familiar Chopin E flat Nocturne, which he delivered like a dream, a romantic poem that owed a lot to the style of the melodies of the operas that were all the rage in the ottocento, the first half of the nineteenth century, when the public swooned at dreamy melodies laced with virtuoso decorations called coloratura.

He began his Wigmore Hall recital January 25 – a packed house – with a handful of the hundreds of little dances that Schubert wrote, ländler that are gay, brisk, alternating with slow ones that catch your heart.

Then came the three Intermezzos and G minor Rhapsodie that make up the opus 119 written by Brahms in his last years when he seemed physically prematurely old. He once said that he never sent his works to the printer until they were 'unassailable'. I remember Alan Rawsthorne, teaching at Dartington, advising his students to study the work of Brahms. He didn't much care for the music but he had to admire the craftsmanship, how the wily old composer solved problems and turned awkward corners. I also recall hearing a pianist – professor of the old school – getting lost in that Rhapsody because he couldn't find the right modulation to lead back to the home key, so that the piece lasted for ten minutes instead of five or six, a feat of improvisation on his part. Piers played this as he did everything else in his recital, note and style perfect.

Opus 110, Beethoven's penultimate Sonata in A flat was played so that it dug deep but also demonstrated the composer's amazing way of intergrating (as Chopin also did) virtuosic decoration in music that is deeply serious; how did LvB manage to invest tonic and dominant progressions so that they sound like statements of spiritual faith?

The programme ended with magnificent playing of the four Ballades of Chopin. Heart, mind, soul, cannons decked with flowers, we got it all, especially in that pinnacle of Chopin's oeuvre, the final Ballade in F minor.

For his final encore, Piers Lane let his hair down and played Dudley Moore's variations on a jingle whose composer is not known: its seven notes have words; the first two are rude then "and the same to you". The late Dud's variations are a witty parody of Beethoven's early-to-middle style, aggressive, imitative, with final cadences ad nauseam. Its crude and funny and it sent us all home in a thoroughly good humour. (Two days late I realised that OF COURSE! The jingle is the first theme of Colonel Bogey.)


The next day in the Queen's Elizabeth Hall the Takacs, resident string quartet on the South Bank, gave one of their regular concerts in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Now unless one writes about the music played and the composers, a review of a Takacs concert these days is apt to be short and sweet. Once the words 'perfection' and 'faultless' have been set down, except, to mention the works played in the recital in question and perhaps mention the date of their next programme. it will be in the same hall on May 20 and will be an all-Schubert affair, with the big G major Quartet and the Trout quintet with double –bass and piano (ImogenCooper will do the tickling); o.k., see you there!

The Takacs now includes only two Hungarians – second fiddle and cello – but the quality remains as good as ever. It is a privelege to hear them. The items on January 25 were by Haydn, opus 71/1 in B flat, Bartok No. 3 and Smetana's E minor, From my Life.

Have you come across that story about Bartok in the twenties meeting Carl Nielsen? After playing some of his music to the Dane Bartok is said to have asked "does it sound modern enough?" but history doesn't tell us the tone of voice or the look on his face. If deadly serious it’s a rather damaging anecdote: if joking, its o.k. But would Bartok make jokes like that?

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Forty, fifty years ago, Neville Marriner and his Academy of St. Martin's were a constant on our musical scene. Nowadays the orchestra performs more often outside than inside the UK, Sir Neville as conductor is more likely to be heard in Germany, Melbourne or Luxembourg than London. Once upon a time the Academy had more recordings in the catalogue than anybody except Karajan. Therefore their concert in the Cadogan Hall, January 18, was a rarity to be welcomed and, as it happened, cherished.

Ancient he may be – eighty-seven next April – but the calendar was the only sign of age. The music came over fully under control, dynamic, full blooded and compelling, true music making as of old. On the brisk side, bows full or at the tip. The Academy played, it seemed, within an inch of its life.

Marriner's repertoire always tended to avoid the grander designs and deeper emotions although he has had his Bach, Handel and Mozart triumphs and I can recall a powerful Eroica, a searing Metamorphosen and heartfelt Tippett. The concert under review began with a reading of Kodaly's Dances from Galanta that leapt off the page and gripped the emotions.

Next came what might be called the Jupiter of the piano concertos, the C major, K. 503, a work that combines majesty with some tunes that remind the listener that the work dates from the time of Figaro. With the ancient marriner was the youthful German Martin Helmchen who was up to the task with virtuosity at the service of the great score, sensitively nuanced and tastefully decorated.

Finally a performance of Mendelssohn's A minor Scotch Symphony as fine as any I've heard. Felix tilted at Berlioz's discords but his own music has many even if they are discords wearing kid-gloves. The passion of the Octet and that miraculous Beethovenish A minor quartet has been greatly refined. Yet there are storms whipped up and a great deal of yearning. The form of the Scotch is interesting, the tunes catchy and the entertainment factor high. This convincing performance was followed by an encore, Percy Grainger's masterly transcription for strings of The Londonderry Air, surely one of the world's most beautiful melodies, one that never fails to produce a catch at the throat.

Come back more often to our podia, Sir Neville!