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.