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.