Monday, November 05, 2012


"Mummy, who is that man standing in front of the orchestra having a public fit"? And how important is what we see the man on the podium doing, as opposed to what we hear.
When I asked Leopold Stokowsky the latter question, he of all people, answered that music was for hearing, not seeing, the look of the conductor was not important.

We concert-goers spend a lot of time watching the conductor and his movements and behaviour, so I think it matters how the conductor looks. Perhaps Stokowsky had got hold of the wrong end of the stick!
I wish I could make a film of several conductors giving the upbeat to, say, Beethoven 5 or Don Juan of Strauss. They would all look different: lunges, swoops, all sorts of movements, Richard Strauss might just lift a finger, Beecham slashes from his knees upwards, Harty might nod or wink, Albert Coates lead with his backside, Furtwangler's hands wobble towards the penultimate button of his waistcoat, Gergiev look like a sufferer from Parkinson's disease - they would all look different for sure. If you asked all these conductors how they would get the orchestra to start, I don't suppose they could have told you. 

Orchestras with resident conductors get to know their various methods and gestures, sometime painful to watch, like Rudolf Schwarz whose body had suffered in a concentration camp. His upbeat could come from behind his back or under his armpit. As a guest conductor at Bournemouth, Charles Groves stood with arms wide apart about to conduct the overture to Euryanthe; a fly settled on his nose so his left arm moved to wipe it off. The orchestra started.
The gestures of the man on the podium can means a lot to the audience. Beecham's courtly movements in Mozart or Haydn could let the audience see how a phrase should go. Strauss was quite undemonstrative but I remember that when he opened his arms the sound in the Albert Hall nearly caused the roof to cave in. Certainly if the conductor gives no indication of a climax the audience can feel disappointed.
On the other hand showing too much emotion can be boring and an audience quickly senses if a conductor is insincere or playing to the gallery. Sargent sometimes gave this impression with an orchestra although with a choir he was thrilling and at his best.  

These thoughts were brought to light by a performance of the suite from Prokofiev's War & Peace, LPO under Vladimir Jurowsky. In more than sixty years concert going I have never seen a conductor whose body language showed such pleasure in what he was doing. Jurowsky positively adored Prokofieve's score. It was not distracting but enchanting; his joy was contagious. I felt 'I could have danced all night'. 
Blake proclaimed 'Damn braces: bless relaxes' so it is never Peace and War, always the other way round. And so, October 3, 4 and 5 we had programmes in a mini-series called War and Peace, the battlefield being the Royal Festival Hall and there was a brace of orchestras being doves and hawks, The London Philharmonic and the Russian National, the whole thought up and conducted by one man, Vladimir Jurowsky. He was late musical director at Glyndebourne and now continuing to be a frequent visitor on the podium of the LPO. Still youngish he is absolutely first-class and imaginative as a builder of programmes.
Britain was at war in 1940 when the young Britten (27 years old and living in the USA) submitted his Sinfonia da Requiem - written in memory of his parents - in response to a commission from the Japanese for a work celebrating the 2600th year of the states founding. It was naïf of him of course it was not acceptable. But the work is a masterly piece, full of new wonderful sounds.
This opening salvo was followed by Walton's first master work, his 1929 Viola Concerto, written by a young man in love with an older woman, well-constructed (the concerto and, who knows, possibly woman too) and full of a beautiful poignancy and bitter sweetness. Lawrence Power lived up to his name and added tenderness. The first of the programmes was topped off by a suite for orchestra of excerpts of Prokofiev's War and Peace, first and welcome performance in this country, I think. Jurowsky conducted it with evident and youthful relish, positively caressing the delightful music.
Next evening the Russian Orchestra took over, beginning with the Sixth Symphony of Vaughan Williams, first unleashed in 1947 when the composer was over seventy years of age. Aggression is present in this work, although it is utterly different from the aggression of his Fourth Symphony. The fingerprints of RVW are there too but the music sounds as if it might come from another planet. The effect was overwhelming I found hearing the symphony after a twenty year gap. The RVW was paired with the Symphony No. 5 by Prokofiev. He conducted his work himself in 1944 and it contains at least fifty good tunes. Curious that Prokofiev and Stravinsky who rarely composed tunes were often bracketed together in name.
On the third night the platform was crowded with over 125 players as the Russian National and LPO joined forces, first of all taking a whack at the 1812 Overture. It was a joyful shindig that could probably be heard in Nizhny Novgorod. Tchaikovsky was in two minds about the overture. First he said he thought it was a poor piece then changed his mind later. True it is episodic - but it works and the moment where the tubular bells enter was truly gala (no cannons incidentally).
It was strange to follow 1812 with Brittan's Dowland take on Lachrymae, rather like putting a thatch cottage beside the Taj Mahal. 
The giant finale was the Leningrad Symphony of Shostabovich; nice bits but OMG is it long, brilliant playing but it was a relief when Dmitri hammered home the prolonged series of final cadences (he always made the sensible point of waking up the commissars with a bang or two.)


Brilliant Production

I have long considered the six symphonies of Martinů to be neglected masterpieces and would prefer to salute his most often staged opera Julietta …. But I cannot. There are countless examples of operas where the music is let down by the libretto;  Julietta has a good libretto let down by second-rate music.
I wouldn't say Martinů's music is bad but I think it is incidental music and not true operatic stuff. It lacks musical substance and continuity in its construction, chattering on for much of the time, syncopated chords and rhythms, sometimes narrowing down to single lines and sequences of common chords, punctuated with the composer's frequent percussion taps and piano breaks.
There are no arias; the music proceeds in recitative most of the time. 'One Damn Thing after Another' describes it.  
An article in the programme-book records the idea that Martinů was partly autistic, citing his obsession of compulsive composing, many of the pieces seemingly written on auto pilot. Dross amongst the gold.
But I know that there are some who think that Julietta is the way I consider the symphonies, a masterpiece. 
The production by English National is by Richard Jones, one of his best and it does the composer great service, constantly enlivening, imaginative to a degree. Taking a hint from the text the set is dominated by a huge accordion, complete with keyboard, stops, wind panels and finished off with mother-of-pearly finish. Antony McDonald designed it but I bet the idea came from Jones. 
The acting and singing were overall excellent. The story by Georges Neveux is about a salesman in search of the heroine, whose voice he heard in a country where nobody has any memory.  The inhabitants only know the present, there is a ministry of dreams and we see a fortune-teller who tells only the past, not the future. The title-role is not a very large part, she is a chimaera and anyway is shot in the second act (or was she?, it is that sort of opera, you don't know for sure). Martinů changed the ending, adding to the confusion. There are many quite interesting questions thrown up in the libretto, which was half promised to Kurt Weill and one wonders what kind of a musical comedy he would have come up with. Peter Hoare (tenor) was good as the searching salesman, Juliette (soprano) was finely sung by the Swedish Julia Sporsen. The cast is large and includes: Man in a  Helmet (Andrew Shore) a Little Arab, a Fishmonger, a Birdseller, a Sailor (dear old Gwynne Howell, still going strong) and others. Oh yes, and there is Susan Bickley as the Fortune-Teller, nearly forgot her, must be losing my memory too.
Edward Gardner directed chorus and orchestra superbly, as if doing his best to convince us of the worth of the piece.

Jennifer Vyvyan Remembered

As we know, Benjamin Britten composed with favourite artists in mind, singers especially. Naturally, Peter Pears had the lion's share of the roles but the soprano Jennifer Vyvyan notched up four: Lady Rich (Gloriana), Mrs Julian (Owen Wingrave)  and two major parts: Tatyana (M.N.'s Dream) and the Governess (Turn of the Screw). B.B. tailored the music to the singers he wrote for them, their compass, taking into account their characteristics, foibles and good notes, so that their music even sounds like a portrait of the artists when more recent singers are performing. Those who were lucky enough to have heard Jennifer hear her voice again, years later, although she died way back in 1974 – she was only forty-nine.

She was peerless in Handel, Rameau and Purcell, in Mozart too (Donna Anna, Constanze, a CD of arias). And she excelled in performances of Britten's Les Illuminations, the War Requiem and the Spring Symphony.  

Michael White organised an eloquent, touching tribute to J.V. in the Wigmore Hall (September 29); during the day talks (including one by her son, Jonathan),  a discussion and recordings, ending in the evening with a recital of songs and arias that she used to sing, with the soprano Elizabeth Watts and the excellent pianist, James Southall. The programme included works by Antony Hopkins, Hugo Wolf (whose Lieder she adored) and Poulenc (she sang, so to speak, the title bosom in Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tirésias at one of the many Aldeburgh Festivals which she graced).  

In the programme Michael White described J.V.'s artistry "as combining a feisty, emotional and somewhat tempestous character with tenderness and a sense of vulnerability". Her performances often sounded as if on a knife edge yet always penetrating to the very core of the composer's intentions. Her intonation was perfect, her sense of style impeccable, whether in music that was lyrical or coloratura above the staves. 

If there was one performance that stood out in her career it was that of the Governess in the Screw, emotionally shattering in its power at the climax but tear-provoking in the scene when she writes to the Guardian of the children ("Dear sir, oh, my dear sir"), a rare purple passage in Britten's output, complete with blue notes and all. 

Her achievement was all the more remarkable in that she had to cope all her life with respiratory problems that eventually led to the heart disease that caused her too early death, problems not always treated sympathetically by the Suffolk composer.
Jenny was a good companion, fun to be with and having a sense of humour that even extended to telling jokes against herself, such as one about her return visit to Wales where the music club secretary greeted her with "good to see you back on our platform. Same old dress, I see."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Australia's Best

Tognetti Still Going Strong

Once upon a time string orchestras were thick on the ground here: there was Boyd Neel, Reginald Jacques, the English Chamber Orchestra and other ensembles often providing good concerts so that we heard Arthur Bliss' fine Music for Strings, the Frank Bridge Variations of Britten and other pieces that are not so frequently played now. But 3000 miles away there is one class act, the Australian Chamber Orchestra. It was founded as far back as 1975 but gained strength in '89 when Richard Tognetti was appointed Artistic Director and Lead Violin. And now, nearly a quarter of a century later he is still there. And he still looks as fresh as he did then and he has not lost any of his ability to play like a master and to uphold his by now international reputation for being a fine trainer of string players (and they sometimes sprout wind and brass for the bigger classics).
The ACO is here to visit Edinburgh for the Festival and London's Cadogan Hall. The programme began with a Paganini gallimaufry, a Caprice on Pag's Caprices, thought up by Tognetti himself, a pleasant overture/cum visiting card, flitting between No. 20 in D and No. 17 in E flat. Curiously the scalic upbeat to the E flat was not articulated so that one heard the notes and not just a flurry. Why, I wondered? Next we heard that fine Oz composer Richard Meale in tonal mood, his somewhat contrived Cantilena Pacifica. The first half ended with another of Tognetti's enlargements: the String Quartet of Maurice Ravel. These string orchestral versions are like viewing a familiar sculpture from an unusual angle and they make one rethink, usually with pleasure, a favourite piece of chamber music, perhaps introducing it to some listeners.
Dawn Upshaw, American soprano, delighted us with songs by Schumann, Schoenberg and Schubert, each accompanied by strings. Mondnacht, magical evocation of nocturnal love, the Litanei from the String Quartet No 2 and Tod und das Mädchen, three teutonic gifts to the world. The concert ended with more Schoenberg, his early, tonal masterpiece, Transfigured Night, Verklärte Nacht, an Art Deco scene that sounds to me always as if it were an Egon Schiele canvas buried in pink wallpaper. The work is violently passionate as if it would tear your heart out, an engulfing experience. 
A special bouquet for the principal viola player, Christopher Moore, whose sound on his instrument was beautiful.


Messiaen and Mahler

It has been Deutschland Über Alles this week at the Proms. Two evenings with the Berlin Phil and on Sunday (September 2) the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (September 2). 'Gewand' = Cloth but this noble band certainly has not got cloth ears. it is one of the world's great orchestras and it played up its reputation in a programme of two whopping great masterpieces: Messiaen's Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum (1964) and Mahler's Symphony No. 6 in A minor (1904 – 6).
The Messiaen is scored for a large orchestra of woodwind, brass and percussion (bells, gongs and tam-tams). There are five movements of an awe-inspiring nature as befits the subject. The Albert Hall is a perfect venue. Sometimes I wonder about the actual quality of the score but it is certainly a quite extraordinary experience. It begins down in the dark regions, as if Fafners are lurking. Five flutes then pierce the ear and one might think that all hell is breaking loose but no, it is, of course, the resurrection – and a graphic representation it is, prompting recollections of Stanley Spencer's canvases and perhaps John Martin's too. The tam-tams – three of them – sound and resound mightily, a shattering noise, especially when dying away; there is nothing in music like it.
One curious quirk: Messiaen's score dwells very much on the interval of an augmented fourth, that’s A downwards to D sharp. Now this interval is known as the devil in music (diabolus in musica). So what is it doing in a piece about resurrection?

Mahler too had a go, most successfully, at the Resurrection in his Symphony No. 2 but of his purely orchestra symphonies surely No. 6 stands supreme, at first dubbed 'Tragic' by the composer, it spans more than an hour and it spans, it would seem, life itself; or maybe Mahler's own life. The work is a model of artful construction, only stepping the bounds once in the half-hour magnificent finale with Mahler apparently predicting his own death with what should have been three blows of fate, except that Mahler could not bring himself to tempt fate and so he cut the third.
Part of Mahler's solution to the problem of the symphony is that his music incorporates fragments of a popular nature (no vulgarity, mind you, not popular in that sense) so that the ear has something to hang on in midst of all the swirling, almost hysterical flights of fancy. There are passages of ineffable beauty to be heard, for example in the brass quasi-chorales and the arches of high violin sound in the finale.

This was a rousing performance with Riccardo Chailly in total command of his Leipzigers and it was certainly the loudest performance of the many I have heard. This is an orchestra to cherish.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Gloria In Excelcis and Provence

There is a Brit lady called Pippa Pavlik and she organizes a festival of concerts called Musique Cordiale in the NW of Var; itself a part of Provence: There is an excellent chorus of about thirty-five Brits and a small orchestra with players from our Royal College of Music in London, the BBC Philharmonic; the Hallé and the Zürich Tonhalle, musician come for the fun of it, paying their own fares but getting free accommodation.

Concerts are given in the churches of hamaux and little towns to towns mostly in the forest near Seillans; Monds, Bargemon, Callian, Correns and in Pippas' own delightful small town of Seillans. The atmosphere is congenial; the music first class, composers ranging from Bach, Tallis and Mozart through to Saint-Saëns, Poulenc and Britten.
This year we had in Andrew Staples the finest young tenor of our time, a phenomenal 20-year old Swiss cellist, Chiara Enderle who played Saint-Saëns Concerto and Kate Howden, a key_of_the_door_year from Sydney whose voice is creeping up the staves from mezzo to full-blown soprano; she has a gorgeous voice and fine musicianship, sounding suitably glorious in Poulenc's Gloria, a stirring performance under the expert direction of conductor Tom Seligman.

In Correns Andre Staples led a small group of male voices, good ones, exquisitely balanced, in Bach' rarely heard little Mass in G minor Mass, the Lamentations of Thomas Tallis together with Poulenc's spicy Saint Asissi Prayers and a barber-shop lollipop finale.
All this was delectable music and music-making, all in delightful churches, in woody situations with get-together suppers for the performers afterwards. 

Bernstein's Mass

What a mixture were the life and works of Leonard Bernstein! Conductor –composer, 'straight' music – popular, homosexual – hetero. for starters; and at the Proms on August 6 his Mass which is a theatre piece with the framework of a Catholic Church ritual but with a Celebrant (Jewish) who moralizes what is a thinly disguised apology for the life of …. Leonard Bernstein.

We all know that Bernstein could write wonderful tunes of immediate appeal but here in his Mass he writes melodiously but not memorably, nothing catchy although his intent is clearly to change the world for the better as well as to apologize for himself. But the text is sloppy, full of word-play that is often verging on vulgarity and sentimental, making many of his audience squirm with embarrassment. Yet I am bound to report that on the whole the audience seemed to like the piece.

The Mass involves a Celebrant (Danish baritone, Morton Frank Larsen, brilliant performer), a boy (Julius Foo, Eton scholar), a band playing out-of-date jazz-style, a symphony orchestra (combined BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the National Youth Orchestra of Wales) and umpteen children's choirs, all Welsh. There were something like four hundred children behind the orchestra and they added a beneficial dimension to the performance (105 minutes). For this horde of children did not just behave circumspectly Bach-Choir-style but, directed by (German) Thomas Kiemle, they showed their emotions, swaying, moving about, almost dancing; they were a force, the best thing in the show.

There was also what Bernstein called a Street Choir who represented the People, reacting to the textual situations. Amid all the Welsh was the Estonian but-raised-in-America Kristjan Järvi, conducting proceedings with a firm, sure hand.

Bernstein had composed one masterwork of our time (West Side Story), several more fine theatre works, a few concert works of great value (including the Chichester Psalms), quite a few stodgy orchestral works, the marvellous Candide but the Mass is surely a failure. There are many things about America to admire but Bernstein's kind of brash moralizing is not one of them.

Ivor Novello at the Proms

What would Harry Wood have said at the news that Ivor Novello's Lilacs were to be gathered during a whole Promenade concert in the Royal Albert Hall (and televised too).? Well, remembering that a great deal of light music was often heard in the early days, he would probably have benevolently wagged his beard as well as his baton. And there was Sir Mark Elder and his Hallé Band (rather surprizingly) on the platform to jolly things along.  

Perhaps for the under sixties this review ought to write a few words about dear Ivor. As a very young man he made name and fortune by composing the hit song of World War One, usually known as "Keep the Home fires Burning". He starred in Hitchcock's silent film The Lodger. He produced and starred in shows in the thirties and later, filling the large spaces of Drury Lane Theatre with glossy, make-believe musicals with threadbare plots. The drama was pure bunkum, clichés two-a-penny, the music like milk chocolate, tasty but soon cloying. 
Audiences loved it all and the tea-trays rattled merrily. There was always a glamourous soprano in the lead to sing the songs. Ivor was the leading male; he didn't sing but he was heart throb no. 1 with beautiful knees and the dream of a profile. He couldn't go wrong, except once in WW2 when he was sent to goal briefly for fiddling petrol coupons.
At the Proms Sophie Beavan sang well and clearly the soprano songs, looking personable rather than glamourous) while the tenor partner was golden-voiced Toby Spence (suffering from cancer but fighting it bravely and here singing like a bird – we all wish him quickly well again). 
The music scarcely gave Mark Elder much to do but he did it efficiently. The orchestrations were pit band style a bit coarse and top-heavy; too many doublings to sound good in a concert hall with scores that are repetitious and formulaic. If Berlioz had been present I think he would have been calling out, as he sometimes did, "twenty francs for an idea", upping the ante if none were forthcoming.  
If there is to be a sequel next year, the planners should bear in mind NOEL COWARD, a better composer, better tunes and some humour into the bargain. Would excess of Novello make Coward-lovers of us all?

Sandor Vegh Remembered

Prussia Cove Chamber Music

The International Musicians Seminar, Prussia Cove, gave a concert on 21 July in the Wigmore Hall to celebrate its 40th Anniversary in the same year as the centenary of its founder, Sandor Vegh.
Vegh was a violinist, great and important, leader of the famous Vegh String quartet who concertized here and worldwide in the forties and fifties, making recorded cycles of Beethoven's late quartets and Bartok's that are still among the very best available. Vegh was also a great teacher and, in later years he became known as a conductor of eminence.
Vegh started giving master-classes at the Summer School at Dartington in the fifties, later at Prussia Cove in Cornwall where annually were given two courses, one for string players and one for chamber music. They have continued to this year, guided by two prominent Vegh followers, Andras Schiff and Steven Isserlis (the latter now the director.)
What was special about the musicianship of Sandor Vegh? Well, his playing had authority, profundity and technical ability but he also had an extra-special feeling for fantasy and colour. He felt that too many musicians connected too strongly only with the printed page. The greatest performers always give the impression that they have also spent long hours improvising so that they have developed a sensory relationship with their instrument that they could never have got if they only ever played from printed notes. Vegh's feeling for the different colours and textures available on his violin set him apart. He would change the sound colour not for the sake of changing it, but in order to illuminate the music. He also could seem to add to the violin the character of the voice and the dance. The shape and sounds of what he played were conjured out of his brain, his experience and his intuition. Because of this he was able to teach and impart to his pupils. And the memory of his teaching is what his followers impart to those who come nowadays to Prussia Cove. And each year his students past and present make tours which include a Wigmore Hall concert. It was an evening on July 21 of momentous playing after a day of teaching. Thirteen distinguished players took part in outstanding performances of the G minor string quintet of Mozart, Contrasts by Bartok, for clarinet, violin and piano, ending with the Piano Quintet by Schumann.
The majority of the names of the players might not be known to the majority of Mus. Op. readers (except for that of Steven Isserliss on cello and perhaps Katherine Gowers the violinist) and it might be invidious to mention names but the players represented the cream of chamber music players working in Britain.
They were all worthy to be taking part in these peaks of the chamber music repertoire; it was an evening of great music making, Prussia Cove at its usual best, keeping alive remembrance of the great Sandor Vegh.

Holland Park Opera

Curate's Egg Productions

Good casting, fine finging, chorus and orchestra excellent backed up by the conductor – so, complete satisfaction? Alas, no. Falstaff was spoiled by hammy fooling, Onegin by time switching. These were the two latest operas to be performed at Holland Park in its sixteenth season which lasted from June 7 – 4 August. 
The title-role in Verdi's swansong Falstaff was sung by Icelandic Olafur Sigurdarson, fine sound and articulation in all registers, good actor and young enough to do cartwheels. Ford, George van Bergen was suitably snarling, Linda Richardson pleasing as his wife with Carole Wilson noteworthy as Mistress Quickly (Georgian Bergen), thrush-throated Nanette (Rhona McKail), tenor Fenton (Benjamin Hulwet), lyrical with suitable casting all the way down.
Dissatisfaction then? The director, Annalese Miskimmon had not learned the basic rule: play comedy and farce straight, conscious funny is not funny. She made her cast mug and ham whereas Verdi's score is a miracle of refinement and subtlety. The conductor Peter Robinson laid it on heavily too.

But the last act had good chorus grouping and atmosphere.

Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin was damaged by altering the period in which the opera is set. The final act sprouted a fifteen foot-high portrait of Lenin and the chorus dressed as Soviet workers, despite which Tatiana was addressed as 'Princess', which is surely having your Communist cake and eating it. Again, casting, singing and musical performance top class, superbly directed by Alexander Polianichko, Mariinsky Theatre. Was Onegin the cad the composer thought he was, or did he do the only thing possible that would avoid a marriage that would surely not last?
Mark Stone (Onegin) was personable and made to seem sympathetic. Peter Auty sang really well as Lensky and Anna Leese Tatiana sang truly; but the set was a tumbled down jumble of wreckage, no bed and no furniture. Anybody seeing the opera for the first time would get a completely false idea of the opera. This time switching is a plague, why do those in charge of planning permit these blots on the operatic landscape?

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Aldeburgh 2012


Imagine the Salzburg Festival where the only Mozart performed is Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and a group of songs; or Bayreuth when the only Wagner performed is the Siegfried Idyll and the Wesendonck songs? No? Then what about this year's Aldeburgh Festival when the only music of Britten heard was the Chinese Songs, Winter Words and some of his early film scores? Oh yes and there was also a talk entitled ' Ben, Peter, Imo and Co.' by somebody with the same name as myself. Still, a pretty meagre crop. But with a director who confessed that his reaction to the music of Benjamin Britten was "neutral', what you expect is what we get.                                                                                                                       

As a pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, however, is first class as he has shown again and again. He was brilliant this year, for example, in Bartok's Sonata for two pianos and percussion and, indeed, in anything he played, including Elliott Carter's Interventions, composed when the American composer was approaching his 100th birthday. This substantial piece was played with the City of Birmingham Symphony conducted with his usual mastery by Oliver Knussen, himself celebrating a birthday, his 60th.

O.K. also brought vividly to life two Ives works, the Fourth of July shenanigan and the wonderful Three Places in New England. Bartok's Three Village Scenes (with small female chorus) was a delightful and rarely heard item. Also heard was Harrison Birtwistle's Cantus Iambeus a short work that confirmed his radio statement:

"I am not in the entertainment business  " (as if we didn't know!). Knussen's own Requiem for Sue (his wife) was eloquently sung by the soprano Dawn Upshaw. 

Great imagination and innovation was shown in an unusual entertainment directed by Netia Jones: three song cycles were sung (and touchingly mimed) by James Gilchrist, tenor of excellence, while decorative and illuminating film went on behind him. All three had to do with childhood and early adulthood: Britten's aforementioned Winter Words, dramatic vignettes that miraculously add an extra dimension to Hardy's poems, Finzi's more homely and almost parochially English A Young Man's Exhortation (also Hardy) and Michael Tippett's cantata Boyhoods End, words by the naturalist W.H. Hudson that recall his childhood in South America, Far Away and Long Ago.

Peter Pears wrote at the time when he premiered the work in 1943 with Britten at the piano, the piece shows "that innovative and radiant fantasy" of Tippett. Gilchrist coped effortlessly, with the coloratura and awkward intervals and Anne Tilbrook did the same with the piano part (which provoked Britten to write to the composer "I wish your piano parts weren't so difficult".)

Other festive delights were the Keller Quartet's fine playing of Bartok's quartets and several transcriptions of Bach and two evenings of unaccompanied choral works: the Monteverdi Choir in an uplifting trawl through early English church scores: Byrd, Tallis, Tomkins and the lesser known but wonderful Robert White (1538 – 1574). Gesualdo's religious music was beautifully tuned and toned by the Callegium Gent direction by Philippe Herreweghe (some could have appreciated a group of some spicy madrigals rather than a whole evening of the penitential Good Friday music that we were given.) It was interesting to compare the style of the two ensembles: John Eliot Gardiner's was more dramatic and passionate, Herreweghe's (appropriately of course) more staid and, erm!, Belgian.

The veteran pianist Menahem Pressler (remember him all those years in the Beaux Arts Trio, one of the great chamber music groups of our time?) played Mozart, Lv B, Chopin and Schubert (the last Sonata in B flat) and gave consummate pleasure. The high point was the pianissimo singing of Chopin's D flat Nocturne, opus 27/2; the sound and shaping ravished the ear – bliss! Alfred Brendel's fingers came out of retirement to illustrate his lecture on Liszt with works he hasn't played in for public for donkey's years. Other pianists included Peter Serkin's rather penitential first half of present day conundra and a magisterial account of LvB's masterly Diabelli Variations; and an enterprising replica of the piano recital that Bela Bartok gave to some no doubt bewildered school girls in 1923 (they can't have known what hit them as the Hungarian arch-modernist regaled them with his early extremely rebarbative pieces of that time.) The excellent pianist was Tatiana Stefanovich, the Jugoslav musician, who had earlier partnered Aimard in Bartok Sonata.

A feature of the Festival, as usual, was that some of the concerts took place in venues away from the Maltings in Snape, the unique Blythburgh Church with its painted angels on the roof, the machine vault in Leiston where the piano stood next to a vintage locomotive, Orford's spacious church, and the school hall where Bartok had earned his £15 – fee nearly ninety years ago.

It should be mentioned, finally, that next year, the centenary of Britten's birth, the planners are actually going to programme several works by the Suffolk genius, including Peter Grimes on the beach! (bring your sou'westers).

The Fairy Queen

Jolly Glyndebourne Entertainment

The Fairy Queen is a hybrid, a semi-opera and it was first seen at Glyndebourne in 2009 on the occasion of Henry Purcell's 350th birthday. It proved to be a jolly entertainment that does not dig deep into one's soul but it was good to see it again, as before produced by Jonathan Dove, seemingly no expense spared. The work is a species of masque, a form popular in the seventeenth century involving actors as well as singers, dancers and musicians. Poetic drama also features, in this case a rehash by Anon of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Curiously, although many of the lines are spoken, Purcell set none of them to music. Barring the first act, the other four each contains a section with text and music devoted to, variously, Sleep, Seduction, the New Day and Marriage. There are additional numbers involving Winter, a Drunken Poet plus Adam and Eve.

Purcell's music is lively and non-subjective, with one or two celebrated numbers such as Hark! the Echoing Air. The music before the second act is a high spot and was finely toned and shaped by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment directed with style by Laurence Cummings. The large cast performs with charm and versatility. There is always something to catch the eye or woo the ear, a giant spider, a full-sized horse, a roi soleil, funny mechanicals and a mass of furry telly tubbies.
Carolyn Sampson captivated with a nocturnal song, Christopher Benjamin was a lovable Drunken Poet, David Soar a weather beaten Winter, Pennie Downie a fearsome Titania and Finbar Lynch a yobbo Oberon.

For once the weather was clement (July 25), sunny and kind, the Sussex audience enjoyed itself hugely and Henry Purcell was done proud.

An eminent musical academic once told me that when the architect, Inigo Jones, himself a renowned producer of masque, got married Purcell composed a saucy catch which began with the words: 'In I go, In I go Jones!! When I pointed out that Inigo Jones died in 1652 and that Purcell was not born until 1659 my academic friend countered "John, with dates you can prove anything".

Berlioz Done Proud

Les Troyens au Jardin de Couvent

Berlioz despaired of ever seeing his darling Cassandra on the stage. We Brits have done him proud at Covent Garden, first with Rafael Kubelik, then with Colin Davis and the unforgettable Jon Vickers as Aeneas; and now July 2012 with a sumptuous production of Les Troyens pretty well sung. Here was the Cassandra the ageing Hector craved, Anna Caterina Antonacci, statuesque, regal, wonderful voice, thrilling, a Cassandra who died for us, a Cassandra to die for. Pappano in the pit gave her entry music with overwhelming passion and he maintained a powerful grip over his virtuosic band. If Berlioz had lived on, I wonder if he wouldn't have played the famous March in the pit instead of having it sounded only on the stage.

The production visually was all curves and flames. The curtain went up (at five o'clock!) on what one might have thought was a bemetalled Albert Hall. More curves for Carthage, tiered this time. Handsome, imaginative: and long ropes for the departure of Aeneas and his men. Dismay at the withdrawal of master tenor Jonah Kaufmann was more than tempered by the performance of his replacement, American Bryan Hywel, good actor, fine voice, every inch a hero, singing his great final aria with passion and ringing high notes. ("There's no turning back"). Coroebus (Fabio Capitanucci, high baritone) a worthy partner. But, what of Didon, Widow Dido? A cheer for Eva-Maria Westbrook, who is beautiful, tall, acts and sings the notes accurately; she would be the ideal Dido if her voice were more beautiful. Chorus lusty, fine.

Virgil's horse was wooden, in W.C.2 the gee-gee seemed all metal, plates, wheels, rods (with a touch of War Horse), vast and menacing. The greatly talented set-designer Es Sutton has worked at the Garden before and she will shortly have her Robert Devereux on view at the Met. Donald McVicar's production was relatively rational, give or take the nowadays habitual time hiccup. Gods and humans, some would leave their dear ones, others would not.

Some of Berlioz's big works have weak endings (who was it said that he had genius but no talent?) but this five-hour epic shows consistent genius, melodies that carry you along, compelling rhythms, ideas two a penny/franc, blazing sequences (flames in the pit as well as on stage). His orchestration so creative it makes the listener grateful that Hector was no pianist.

Only one blot on Trojan landscape: the ballet numbers were ruined by inept choreography. Otherwise it was a worthy performance of a truly grand masterpiece. Berlioz would have been grateful.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Lina Lalandi

For several decades Lina Lalandi was a force in music. When I first came across her in the fifties she was a harpsichordist. She had a mass of black hair, very handsome, elegant, a ball of fire even if her playing wasn't very good. At that time she would take the little recital room in the Festival Hall building. She also demonstrated for Hugh Gough. By a quirk of fate, the two best makers of harpsichord makers lived in the same London street, Pont, and their names were Tom Goff and Hugh Gough. Both were upper-classsuper amateurs; I remember that Hugh could not pronounce his r's "Play the Wameau Pwelude" he would say to Lina.

In 1963 she organised her first Oxford Bach Festival, choosing that town because she had recruited the Professor of Music there, Sir Jack Westrup. Lina had big ideas: her first festival president was Albert Schweitzer; when he died Igor Stravinsky took over;  and when he died Leonard Bernstein replaced him.

William Glock once said that his aim was to programmemusic that people might like 'next year'. With Lina it was music they might like 'next decade'. She put Olivier Messiaen on at Oxford before he became famous and the takings were £27. She gradually moved her festival to London and elsewhere, putting on music by Varèse, Berio and her countrymen Skalkottas and Xenakis. She put on Wameau operas (with something like authentic costumes and dances). She got Stravinsky to conduct his Symphony of Psalms.

But the box office receipts rarely made ends meet. Her long suffering banker husband, Ralph Emery could not persuadeher to cut her cloth etc. Events thinned and finally stopped altogether. But no doubt she thought it was all worthwhile.

The trouble with Lina was that she had always got money and artists to pay and play by persuasion; but she didn't just persuade, she badgered, she nagged; a phone call from Lina could last a whole morning. She was relentless.

Banks, sponsors, supporters gradually gave up. She had been made OBE in 1975. I tried to get her a higher honour, for her to be made an honorary member of the Royal Philharmonic Society. No good, everybody remembered the nagging and bullying phone calls.

It was sad because her intentions were of the best; her taste was impeccable, and her achievements considerable and important.

Lina died June 8 this year, aged 91. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Sonic Boom

On Monday 25 June I had a major experience I did not expect; the most sumptuous orchestral sound I have ever heard in my life. It was at an open rehearsal in the Royal Festival Hall of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra we hear so much about and their whizz-kid of a conductor, Gustave Duhamel. (By now, some the youths are in their thirties, but no matter). The sound of, at a guess, two hundred instrumentalists was a shattering experience, I can tell you, possums; it was positively an aural orgasm: the sight of some seventy violins and violas bowing together on the G string or reaching into the rosin places in high-lying Richard Strauss was incredible, supported down below by ten horns, umpteen cellos and a dozen double-basses, overwhelming. Grasping for analogies I can only say it was like snuggling on half-a-dozen eiderdowns or tackling a whole pile of jammy trifles. OMG! It was Pelion on Ossa, sun rises and sunsets, one after the other.

When the orgy was over, the lady in the neighbouring seat asked me "what was that they played, do you know?" Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony I replied. My neighbour also asked if the music was great and of course I had to say 'no' but that it was the perfect showcase for such a vast orchestra with climax after climax, sonic amplitude after sonic tone-burst, sunrise after sunrise and finally, detumescence after detumescence, i.e. taking a long time to drop the penny. Incidentally, Gustave Duhamel is no whizz-kid but obviously a thoroughly competent and skilled conductor, totally in command of his vast forces as regards balance and musical sense. Oh, possums, fifty minutes of gorging the gorgeous!

John Ireland in Chelsea

Was the composer John Ireland a petit maître? True, his songs and piano pieces are the best of him, and he composed no operas or symphonies. But there is nothing small about some of his marvellous chamber music: his Cello Sonata, played on the last evening (25th June) of a mini-festival of Ireland and Co, mostly in St. Luke's Church, Chelsea, where he was organist for twenty years, is a big-boned piece, well structured, written in 1924 in a mood of grieving and raging about the Great War, lyrical, richly chromatic and demanding virtuosity from its performers Julian Lloyd Webber and John Lenehan, and concentration from its audience. It got both. The work that followed, the second of Ireland's Piano Trios, is the achievement of a master, not a petit maître.

Another master work was his substantial number for piano, not quite finished but a great piece, typical Ireland, but also at times, influenced by Ravel and even looking forward to Messiaen. It is on a big scale and has been titled Ballade of London Nights but could be called a sonata in one movement. It was scaled and conquered with some fine pianism by Maria Marchant. There was also music excellently played by the East London Brass and good singing from the Addison Singers conducted by the Festival director, David Wordsworth. Music was also included in the other concerts by Ireland's teacher, Stanford and his pupils, one of which was by Ireland's friend, Alan Bush. A work by the latter was his unaccompanied choral piece which Bush wrote describing and lamenting Lidice a Czech village which the Germans completely erased as reprisal for the assassination of the Nazi boss, Heydrich. It was first performed in Czechoslovakia on the actual site where Lidice had been (I was a temporary member of the Workers Music Association so the sad music brought back memories).
Many songs were sung superbly by Roderick Williams, the baritone whose singing and artistry are at their peak now. And of course he included that memorable, popular and fine song Sea Fever. It remains Ireland's best known piece, as is Stanford's haunting Bluebird in his oeuvre.
I don't suppose Ireland's music will ever be as popular or as much played as the big boys of British music but there will always be some who will savour much of his oeuvre. This festival was a welcome remainder of a true maître, petit or grand.

Poor Butterfly

Grange Park Opera's repertoire is down this season to just three works: Idomeneo/Mozart, Queen of Spades/Tchaikovsky and Madama Butterfly/Puccini. This was the second year running that Cio-Cio San was caught in the Hampshire net; its production is a dismal, threadbare affair, visually. The set consists of a screen, a curved plywood? background in brown and a platform six inches high which is all anybody has to squat on until act two when an inappropriate-looking armchair appears.

The main protagonist, Mr and Mrs Pinkerton, sang their notes well but there was no love chemistry between them; indeed they looked rather like an Oldie magazine advert for insurance for the aged. Lieutenant Marco Panuccio seemed pawky and paunchy rather than a dashing Yankee; (Mrs) Claire Rutter sported unflattering garments topped by an ugly wig so there was nothing to make her look desirable, let alone the 'fifteen years' she admits her age to be. Her Suzuki/Sara Fulgoni towered over her mistress, sounding unsympathetic, Sharpless / Stephen Gadd was good but kitted out in shabby looking morning dress. Not a winning looking bunch.
Yet …and yet, the music came across strongly, hearts were touched and tears flowed (mine did near a dozen times.) What a masterly score it is! Puccini's finest work surely. And Claire Rutter showed stamina in delivering her long part impressively so that the audience forgot her none too satisfactory get-up. But where there is a good operatic performance, it nearly always means that the conductor is first-class and so it was here (June 30).Gianluca Marciano obtained great things from the English Chamber Orchestra (not so 'chamber' neither). So there was real pleasure to be had in the beautiful surroundings of the Hampshire countryside. But Grange Opera can, and should, do better in the way of décor and costumes.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

BBC Radio 3

Sam Philips, Chris Wines, Louise Fryer and John Amis - BBC Radio 3 July 3rd 2012

Listen to it on the BBC Radio 3 iplayer online.

Friday, June 29, 2012

John Amis at 90 on BBC Radio 3

On July 3, BBC Radio 3 will honour Dr John Amis, presenting a two and a half hour programme with him, carefully selected by the production team and John Amis archives, starting at 7.30pm.
From the 1950s onwards, Amis became a regular contributor to BBC Radio's music output, and worked on BBC Television from 1961, producing and presenting documentaries, and introducing the BBC2 magazine programme Music Now.
As a broadcaster, he is probably best known for his appearances as a team member from 1974 to 1994, on the panel show, My Music, both on Radio 4 World service and Transcription service to English speaking countries world wide (never off the air in Australia). His own radio show Talking about Music on Radio 3 interviewed countless celebrated musicians.
In June 2012, Amis gave a talk to a full house in the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh as part of the festival, on Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst and the Festival since it began 65 year ago.

The programme on 3 July will include interviews with Benjamin Britten, Elisabeth Schwauzkopf, Irmgard Seerfried, Myra Hess, Percy Grainger, Leopold Stokowski, Mario Giulini and with Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zuckermann and Charles Beare trying (& failing) to tell the difference between a Strad, a Del Jesu, a Vuillaume and a brand new 1985 fiddle. Many other goodies including Earl Wild improvising on a Bach theme in the style of Poulenc.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Berlin Pleasures

Verdi enthusiasts probably agree that, while Otello and Falstaff are the summit of the Master's work as complete operas, the act of Don Carlos that contains the dialogue with the Inquisitor is surely the finest single act. Mid-April I went with a party of Brits to Berlin for five days music-making which contained a truly memorable performance of the Schiller based opera. This performance began well enough but gradually became positively inspired – a great occasion. The conductor was Donald Runnicles, alive to the overall pacing of the week as well as the individual nuances – the orchestra superb if at times too loud. The venue was the Deutsche Oper and the version played began with a sombre brass prelude, no love duet but the first one between Posa and the Don. The scenic feature of the sets was a series of grey, chunky walls with silver paper covering, that perpetually moved about – rather tedious. Curiously from the point of view of etiquette, King Philipp received the Inquisitor in his bedroom. The auto-da-fé scene was suitably gruesome and firegirt (oh, that wonderful tune the Flemish men sing, surely the best in the opera?). The star of the show was Alastair Miles/King Philipp; a beautiful voice from below the plimsoll line up to top F: he positively exuded danger, that is, until he started to feel sorry for himself (cello obbligato very well played). The Grand Inquisitor was sinister and with a fine powerful voice (Kristin Sigmundsson. Posa (Markus Bruck) was mellifluous and symphathetic (his character always reminds me of Piotr in War and Peace). The ladies were at one time very good and powerful, next moment inclined to wobbles and shrillness. But the performance as a whole was superb, as good as you could wish for (Elisabeth/Meagan Miller, Eboli/Anna Smirnova). The Don himself/Massimo Giordano was suitably inclined to hysteria, fine voice all the way up.
The previous evening (Friday, 13 April) contained a very mixed bag: Fauré Requiem at the end with Schumann's Piano Concerto in the first half; also two numbers by Luciano Berio, not long but insignificant: Evó (a Sicilian lullaby) and O King (Luther). Murray Perahia must have played the Schumann hundreds of times yet it sounded wonderfully fresh, powerful and poetic, fine accompaniment by the Berlin Phil. with that rattling good British conductor, Sir Simon, in fine form throughout, introducing, apparently to his performers the Fauré. The Rundfunkcho Berlin was a joy to hear, positively piercing the heart as it sang the Libera Me tune pianissimo. Sorry to say neither Kate Royal nor Christian Gerhaher were eloquent enough for their tasks. Our last evening was spent in the pretty Komische Oper with Der Rosenkavalier, a mixed blessing. The Marschallin (Geraldine McGreevy) and Octavian (Stella Doufexis) were excellent, so was the Baron Ochs Jens Larsen but the production (Andreas Homoki) often veered towards jokey farce. Recognising that the weak spot of the opera is the beginning of the third act he decided to do what Rossini and other composers of the otto cento might have done, he whistled up a storm (too many flashes). The part of the Italian Tenor is not much more than one glorious song but Tim Richards sang it so beautifully as to linger in the mind. Bravo! The conductor (Patrick Lange) looked very young but sounded very experienced, well paced, another fine orchestra.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Seabirds and Edwardian Opulence

The odd men out have been often the ones who produced masterpieces, often men under sentences of death or crippled on way or the other, completely deaf, tuberculosis or syphilis, obsessive to the point of madness; then there are some we throw into prison. Of course there are lesser torments, some composers needing to wear fancy lingerie (because of skin disease.) Of course there are just as many who sit at a desk and get on with their writing, ones who are impotent, homosexual and suffer from class distinctions because their parents were in 'trade'. I am sure you can identify the composer I am referring to, even down to the last mentioned who always felt socially inferior, lapped up honour s and spent his last penny on acquiring the fancy clobber necessary for presentation days. Yes, Elgar has been heard just recently, his first Symphony, conducted brilliantly and convincingly by Sir Mark Elder with the LPO in the Royal festival Hall (March 24). Boult depth and authority were evoked here (although the sepulchral bark of the muted trombones at the end of the Adagio did not quite come off). And imagine the insensitive audience applauded after the slow movement – Oh joy, whatever next? 'Coach parties' a voice near me grumbled. Elder's programme included another golden oldie, Delius wonderful essay in nostalgia, Sea Drift "I curious boy, never too close" (to the sea-birds, solitary guests from Alabama, as unlikely subject for music as Janacek's vixen) yet how potent and sheerly beautiful they emerge in Delius's music). Roderick Williams (solitary guest from not so far from Alabama) was a sensitive, poetic birdwatcher. The London Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra almost matched one's memories of Beecham. The previous evening in the same hall the BBCSO and Symphony Chorus – superb as usual – were heard in Tippett's poignant, powerful evocation of the horrors that overcame Europe in the 30's. Tippett's was an unlikely success. In 1942 he was clapped into gaol as a conscientious objector; the LPO was brave two years later in putting on the oratorio of a composer known not for his compositions but for his record as a communist turned pacific who was also a homosexual. A Child of Our Time is the story of a Jewish boy so frustrated by not being able to get the exit papers so important to the boy and his mother that he shoots a Nazi official. Tippett does not personalize his four solo singers; his trump card was, where Bach used chorates known to the audience, that he used negro spirituals, hottedup in the latest style, an emotional meltdown. It was a risky idea but it works, emotionally clinching.

Middle Period Masterpiece

If Benjamin Britten had lived in the nineteenth century he would have had to spend time battling with censors. Can you imagine them passing The Turn of the Screw, Billy Budd or Glorian? After the French Revolution the Ruling Classes were twitchy about any words on stage about disaffection of clergy or monarchs. At one point Bellini had to change his title because Norma could be inferred to be an ecumenical office. In 1832 Victor Hugo's play Le Roi s'amuss was taken off before its second night and not seen on stage for another fifty years. But it was published which is how Verdi saw it and realised, correctly that it was perfect for an opera. "The greatest drama of modern times. Triboulet (the original name for Rigolette) is creation worthy of Shakespeare's". A battle commenced with the local Venetian censors which was won after changing the name, place and epoch. Piave's libretto, master-minded by the composer, is of its time, but can only be criticized on the grounds that Rigolette's nastiness is not anything like fully shown. The master-stroke is the famous quartet, with the four characters each projecting different sentiments in different music, something Hugo cannot do in his play, something that he envied the composer for. And, not content with the vocal parts, Verdi throws in a clanging bell and a raging storm. Rigolette was given in the Royal Opera House on 30th March, the first of a run of a revival of Donald McVicar's decade-old production, it’s the one with two ugly sets, a castle on the skew-whiff a Gilda's cage-like pad. The hero of the evening was the conductor John Eliot Gardine, gunpowder tense, full value to the lyrical parts and complete command of chorus and orchestra, both on top form. The three principals were less than wonderful but more than competent. Vittarie Gringlo was a suitable brash Count, a singing Errol Flynn-type, any amount of confidence but lacking in bel canto. Dimitri Plantanias had a sure command of the notes in all registers, acted well, pleased the groundlings and only lacked that extra depth of character that would make one forget Tite Bobbi. Gilda (Ekateri Siurina) likewise had many good points just lacking that star quality that would put her into the bracket of stalls that cost two hundred pounds a time. Verdi and Gardiner made the evening memorable no wonder the composer know he had hit gold.

Beethoven Quartets

Belcea Supreme The Belcea String Quartets started to get known at the Aldeburgh Festival, had residence there. It took some time to pronounce the name, hard C or soft, Romanian like we thought the leader was? But it did not take us long to realize the quality of the group, the four quarters of their fine string playing just right for the performance of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, all of which it played in a completely satisfying way, no frills just concentration on and devotion to classical quartets. Bartok was added, also good, as idiosyncratic as the Tackas. Recording contract, London concerts, soon Vienna, Paris, America – we soon had to share the Belcea with the civilised world; we did so willingly because the four came back to London often enough. We felt proud that 'our' quartet received the acclaim it deserved; the playing matured, became even more cherishable. On March 22 the Belcea String Quartet played a Beethoven evening in the Wigmore Hall: Opus 18/1 in F, 1800; 59/3 in C, 1806, 'Razumovsky', and 132 in A minor, 1825. In his exemplary programme notes Misha Donat pointed out that, of course, opus 18 does not apply any immaturity. Beethoven was 30 years old: he was well aware that his first published quartet was awaited with interest, would be scrutinized and compared, so he took great care with what he launched into the critical Viennese circle, revising this F major work considerably over a couple of years. One sign that this was no tiro, was his use of that important element in the work of …silence. Between opus 18 and 59 lie few years but an enormous growth in immaturity, the same composer but a world of difference. Which there is also between the 'Razumovsky' trio and the rare atmosphere of the late quartets. How was it that LvB did not simply explode with the intensity and concentration required to think out these amazing late pieces? Interesting that he augmented in them the use of sonata form by putting new life into some forms of former times. The quartet playing of the Belcea gave full weight and fluidity to the three works, one marvelled anew at the leader's mastery of her music, so high-flying, ever reaching way above the staves. The music was no doubt familiar to the packed and appreciative audience who took in the allusions in the slow movement of 18/1 to Romeo & Juliet, the worldliness – almost Jewish flavour – of the second movement of 59/3 and the rarified slow chorale of 132 that precedes the ecstatic dithyrambic finale. It wasn't easy to return to the mundane world.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Amis at 90

The Tait Memorial Trust presents

John Amis 90th Birthday Celebration talks to Humphrey Burton
John Amis and Humphrey Burton have been friends for donkeys’ years. Humphrey has been a TV man, John radio and critic. They have known everybody who was anybody in music for 60 years, and have the stories to prove it.

Both are now in their 80s, but still have many of their own teeth, which are often to be seen in London or Aldeburgh, France and Australia.

Stefan Cassenemenos will join them, a virtuoso Australian pianist of today, to play Liszt’s virtuosic Rigoletto-Paraphrase.

Tuesday 24 April 2012
7 for 7.30pm at 49 Queen’s Gate Terrace London SW7 5PN

Suggested donation of £35 for interview and buffet dinner, £25 for interview only. No presents just donations to the Trust. RSVP to



Andrew Staples is a newly risen star in the operatic world who has proved his outstanding tenor with Das Lied von der Erde directed by Sir Simon Rattle and the title role in Candide in the Barbican. But he is also a wizard opera director; on 17 March he was in charge of the fourth and last performance of Rossini's second most often performed comedy-opera La Cenerentola, sung in Italian. The venue was Barn Court in remote Hampshire near Farnham, the barn seats 140, has an inverted V roof, excellent acoustics. Last year it was Don Giovanni; the object of Bury Court is to give opportunity to young promising artists. Staples also did the casting and played ducks and drakes with the surtitles bringing wittily and inoffensively the 1817 opera into our century. The cast had no weakness, all acted well as well as coping with Rossini "s florid coloratura roulades and runs.

The sound was not particularly Italianate but the musical style was right. Cenerentola is predominantly an ensemble opera, reaching its climax near the end with a sextet in which each of the principals sings the tune and then breaks into variations of the most delightful and virtuosic species, it is a masterpiece, Gioachino in full flight with showers of vocal fireworks. The Prince and his valet Dandini impersonate each other when they come to Cinderella's house, confusing her family, and sometimes the audience. Dandini was not only more princely but a head taller. A minor point and of course tenors who can scale the heights, in both senses, are not easy to come by. Nicholas Darmanin sang his aria heroically and suitably highly, Dandini, John Mc Kenzie was very good, impressive and suave.

But what of the heroine, Cinders? Rossini wrote the part for a contralto but Conchita Supervia ( I heard her once sing the part ) and then Kathleen Ferrier were the last of the breed,it seems. So it is usually a mezzo-soprano these days, like Stephanie Lewis who took the part at Bury, good, almost a show-stopper. The star of the show was her wicked father, Don Magnifico, David Woloszko, plenty of en bon point, some charm and a magnificent voice and stage sense. These days the custom is for what our pantomines call the Ugly Sisters to be pretty as here they were; Clorinda /Eliana Pretorian was good in the duets and showed a powerful voice when it came to her aria. Tisbe/Belinda Williams in the second of the two acts developed into a comedian of the first class, one couldn't take ones eyes off her, every mime and gesture was so funny, a genuine droll.

There was but a single set, a diner-cum-bar with Cinders as barmaid and drudge; so we had no carriage or transformation scenes. Both the set and the costumes by William Reynolds were brilliant. The overture's exquisite opening clarinet solo was cut. Simon Over conducted the excellent Southbank Sinfonia, the 18 players raised up behind the stage.

There was also a six-men singing chorus, black hats, sometimes joined by girls who only danced; they were really part of the show, so well directed.

The whole performance was delightful and the audience happy and jolly. Rossini might have regretted the lack of garlic and chianti in the singing but would have been content, I think, with the superior musical style of the performance. The surtitles might have sometimes foxed him, especially "if we are not careful we may end up in the Betty Ford clinic".

I have seen many country-house opera productions recently but this, by a long way, topped the lot. More power to Bury Court Opera's future, especially if stapled to Andrew.

Monday, February 27, 2012


Master Musician – Great Pianist

Now that he has retired from the concert platform, do we call him a past master? No, he is still in our minds a master and we salute him.

Who showed more teeth when performing, Alfred Brendel or Ken Dodd? Alfred hated waiting in the artists' room; he always hurtled onto the platform as if he could not wait to get on with the music. For many years his fingers oozed blood so that his fingers were covered with band-aids " I am the only pianist who cannot play unless he is plastered."

He obviously likes playing with words as well as piano keys so it was no great surprise when he started to write poetry; it is published and he has even had some of his poems set to music by Harrison Birtwistle. In his early days, he had many concerts in Germany and his native Austria with his baritone friend Hermann Prey. Their tours entailed many rail journeys and while waiting for trains they used to make funny faces into those four-shot photograph booths that you find on platforms, acting out lines from Schubert's Winterreise or Die Schöne Müllerin. Another. Another habit was collecting misprints. Alfred would hand you the latest from his wallet and scan your face eagerly until you got the joke when he would explode with laughter.

On the contrary, his performances were very serious, just occasionally to the point of being on the intellectual side when he could lose his spontaneity, over-phrasing simple tunes.

He researched music texts thoroughly, not even trusting so called Urtexts, searching out the original autographs whenever possible. At his usual best, his playing was a perfect blend of head and heart, backed up by technical perfection. Playing Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert and Weber (his playing of W's Konzertstuck was like a romantic dream), Liszt (in his early days), Busoni and Schönberg, peerless, he was one of the greatest pianists of his day.

He settled in Hampstead in a house full of native art; and when the house next door became available, he bought that too, so as not to be overheard by neighbours.

He became interested in the piano's innards in his constant search for a good piano, knowing just enough about things like pricking the felts as to be a bit of a menace to the piano tuners and technicians. He is obviously a good teacher – as witness his star student, Imogen Cooper. Marriages: two; children, also two, a son and a daughter. Adrian is a fine cellist, often playing recitals with his father.

Long may he enjoy his retirement!


The Overture, Concerto, Symphony concert programme that existed for such a long time seems to have been overtaken by the American habit of a programme with just two works, even beginning with a concerto. On February 9 in the RFH we started off with one of the weightiest of Piano concertos, the B flat, Brahms No. 2, Opus 83, composed about the time that he sprouted his beaver. Clara must have had her work cut out to get her maulers round it – surely it’s a man's work if ever there was one.

Rich, beautifully composed, a complicated structure, perfect in all its parts from the serene horn solo lead-in, through the chunky scherzo, the tender cello solo in the Andante, ending with the gay (old style meaning) finale. You almost forgive of the work coming to an end the way it happens, like a stately galleon coming into harbour.

The Russian pianist Arkadi Volodos whose masterly Rach. 3 some time ago might have made one wonder if he might take the Lang Lang road to the flashing lights – but no, his way with the Brahms was virtuoso, yes, but measured and serious, almost solemn at times. Bliss was it!

The second heavy weight of the evening was the Fourth Symphony of Shostakovich, composed while World War 2 was raging but penned while Dmitri was in peace and quiet faraway in a Soviet composer's hideaway. There are various hidden agendas that have been put forward, but hidden is the wrong word. No. 8 does not hide its message for it batters its way into the listener's ear and consciousness, it goes for the jugular, searing the hearer, despite some quieter moments, quite shattering even if the coda is a soothing glimpse of better times (wishful thinking on Dmitri's part?).

There are some similarities between No. 5 and No. 8 but whereas 5 has many melodic moments, 8 has few and is surely about DEATH. The DEATH of those millions who fought in the siege of Stalingrad and, just as surely, DEATH of more millions bulleted by the monster Stalin, and, quite likely, DEATH feared by the composer himself.

It is one of the wonders of our musical world that the persecuted Shostakovich was compelled by his inner self to go on composing, composing masterpieces too. A veritable miracle. certainly none in the audience in the RFH could forget it. The Philharmonia Orchestra under Tugan Sokhiev (Russian though the programme does not say so), played like virtuoso heroes and superb artists. Shattered we were in the audience, but somehow refreshed by a notable experience.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Jones Brilliant Production

"I prefer Offenbach to Bach often" – Also sprach Sir Thomas Beecham. So, hurry to the London Coliseum where on February 10 English National put on a scintillating new production by Richard Jones of Offenbach's perennial favourite, The Tales of Hoffman. Offenbach was a German who lived in France most of his life. Having written a string of successful operettas he decided to have a crack at a grand opera. Death began to overtake him and he could not finish it (the premiere was in Paris in 1881, the year after the composer died). Guiraud who wrote the recitatives for Carmen did the same service for the Tales and orchestrated the whole thing. Various editions exist but the opera is rather a mess. Offenbach's numbers, songs, arias, duets etc., are fine, rull of favourites melodies and fascinating musical ideas, but the bits in between are lumpy hackwork so that the score is a hodgepodge. But the plot is intriguing and the tunes are winners, that’s why it is still in the repertoire.

There are three Tales, each in a different venue (though all in the same single set in this production – i.e. no gondolas for the Venice Tale) and each is devoted to a different girl that Hoffman woos without scoring a hit: Olympia because she is a doll, Antonia because she is a sick singer, who will die if she sings, and Guiletta apparently because she is a tart. Barry Banks sang all the notes (its a difficult role) but he is no romantic heartthrob. Georgia Jarman, American soprano was stunning as Olympia, a lifelike doll (!), singing and acting the part superbly. Alas, in the other acts she sang loudly and her intonation suffered accordingly. Her tartiness consisted of swishing her skirt incessantly. The subsidiary parts (three venues means a big cast) were all well cast and played, headed by the always excellent Clive Bayley as Lindorf and Dapertutto, Christine Rice as Hoffmann's trouser-role boy companion Nicklaus, Iain Paton/Spalaanzani, Simon Betteries/Frantz and Tom Fackrell/Schlemil.

What a treasure that famous Barcarolle is! To be told that it was originally part of another work altogether is like being told that there aint' no Santa Claus; such a lilting lulu, the very essence of Venice one would think.

Permit a grouch and a suggestion anent surtitles: they are too small in this theatre, illegible to many of the audience. And why not indicate the name of the character as he or she sings for the first time? So often one needs to know.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Cosi fan Tutte

6th Covent Garden Revival

The revival of Mozart’s COSI fan TUTTE at Covent Garden, Friday, January 27th, was like a curate’s egg. Not good in all parts. Mozart was OK, Jonathan Miller’s production was OK, and the orchestra played well, the soloists in wind and brass, as usual, bang in the middle of any note. But that was more than you could say of the singers (with one shining exception – Thomas Allen - approaching his 300th assumption of the role of the scheming Don Alfonso). Mozart requires exact intonation without any bulging tones or distortion towards the upper register. These vocal imperfections have become something like my King Charles’ head but it is surely a critic’s responsibility to try and maintain standards.

COSI is a long opera and on this occasion it seemed very long indeed, even a bit tedious. Why? Imperfect singing and a conductor (Sir Colin Davis) who seemed to be on autopilot, not bad but lacking lustre.

I ‘discovered’ Colin when he was doing exuberant and stylish work with the semi-amateur Chelsea Opera Group and got him one of his first assignments, to conduct at Bryanston in 1951 at the Summer School of Music. After a time with the BBC Scottish he became director at Sadlers Wells; the big breakthrough came when he took over a Don Giovanni in the RFH from an indisposed Klemperer. For a time he was in charge of the BBCSO and eventually he got to Covent Garden in 1971 and the LSO I ’95. A recent heart attack seems to have slowed him down, his exuberant freshness seemed absent from this COSI. Tired Mozart is a contradiction in terms.

The Ferrando, Charles Castronove (American) was not new to the house but nearly all
the others were: Guglielmo – Nikolay Borchev (the two ‘Albanians’ were kitted out to look like caricatures of Nigel Kennedy); the other newcomers were Malin Byström (Swedish) and Dorabella, Michèle Losier (Canadian); Rosemary Joshua was a delightful perky Despina. All attractive competent actors. The outstanding performance though, vocally and histrionically, was that of Sir Thomas Allen, bang in tune and a joy to watch.

After the performance Tony Hall , Administrator of Covent Garden, made a presentation to Thomas and congratulated him on his 40th year at the Garden where he has sung over 50 roles, a warm high baritone voice and an ability to become the character he is portraying. He is easily the best Don Giovanni I have seen and his portrayals of Billy Budd, Wozzeck, the Count in Figaro and Gianni Schicchi were all benchmarks and a marvel to experience. (He’s a nice bloke too!)

Bream: Master of the Frets

"Mr. Bream" asked the German Ambassador after young Julian played some solos "you play this Spanish music so marvellous, you must have Spanish blood, nein?". "Wot me" answers Julian in his usual Cockney vernacular "I was born in Battersea, between the Pah (power) station and the Dogs 'Ome." Yes, true, but his commercial advertising Dad liked to play guitar jazz with the local lads of an evening. His little boy found the guitar about the house and was soon strumming, jazz-style riffs. But one day Dad brought home a 78 record of the great Spanish virtuoso, Andres Segovia, playing that fascinating Tremolo Study by Tarrega. In an instant Julian was converted to the classical repertoire – although he continued to play jazz.

From time to time, Julian played little gigs in people's parlours. Ladies fell for the young prodigal and raised money to send the lad to the Royal College of Music. No guitar teacher but he could learn the rudiments and music history. The guitar and Julian became popular among the students, so much so, that the Principal of the College actually forbade young Jules to bring his guitar into the building. More little gigs, his fame spread, bigger gigs. Julian was taken under the wing of Tom Goff (maker of harpsichords, pal of the Queen); he eventually persuaded Julian to play the lute, making for him a beautiful instrument so that Julian became the ruler of ancient staves as well as classical, romantic and modern 'dots', as Julian dubbed printed music.

He began a concert-giving career, broadcast, made gramophone records, became a favourite at the Aldeburgh Festival, inspiring Benjamin Britten to write the song cycle Songs from the Chinese (tenor and guitar) in 1957 and the solo Nocturnal after John Dowland in 1963. When Britten was ill or too busy, Peter Pears and Julian gave recitals together, sometimes with guitar, sometimes lute. In time Julian formed a consort 'playing the ancient stave' with players including Joy Hall on the gamba and (my wife) Olive Zorian on violin.

Julian organised his life with skill and artistic sensability. When he toured in exotic places, India for example, he would extend his tour in order to get to know the place, its people food and drink. He also made a deal with his record company so that he had a free hand to record what he liked, where to record it and who should engineer the disc, an almost unique and profitable system.

Many composers wrote music for Bream: William Walton a song-cycle Anon in Love 1959 and some solo Bagatelles 1972; and Malcolm Arnold his Guitar Concerto in 1959 (lollipop tune in the first movement, deep blues second movement).

Love life: vigorous and varied, including a lengthy affair with the cellist Amaryllis Fleming, and three marriages, the second short and not sweet, the other two lasting longer but not ending well.

Julian's vernacular continued to be salty and fruity. He described himself at the festival in Elmau, Germany, as being 'knee deep in girls'; on entering a Royal Academy exhibition room dominated by a large nude: "crikey, I know 'er – what a smashing pair of plonkers". At one time he would offer a cigarette: "have a choob of narcotic joy" and, anticipating government warnings, "have a cancer rod".

Cricket was a passion, slow spin, occasionally with gloves to protect his 'German bands' (hands); every year at one time there was an annual match against the local Dorset farmers, pre-match net practice obligatory. I was warned that the opposing team were sometimes stroppy and refused to 'walk', arguing the toss with the umpires. Julian wittily circumvented that by engaging as umpires a couple of local Jesuit priests.

Julian had a penchant for fast cars. Once on the way to Glyndebourne a naughty driver cut rudely across our path. A bit later we spied the same car waiting to turn right at a traffic-light. "Shall we put the wind up the bugger?" says Julian and revs up the car; we whistle past the car; but the space was less than anticipated so that it was us who got the wind-up. Silence for ten minutes then Julian says "bloody hell, Amis, that was fag-papers".

He came no less than eight times to Darting ton to the Summer School, to play, teach, smoke his Gauloises, entertain and cut a swathe thought the girls. One day in class he criticized the sound one student made. "All very well for you, you've got a custom made box." Julian said he had a point and went round the class playing on all the students' instruments one by one (making a good sound on each one, as it happened).

One day Julian bashed his car and himself on a local bridge going home after a jar or three "I knew that bridge well, but that night it had gotten smaller". He recuperated, then started playing again. But some of the magic seemed to have gone; Julian was never the cleanest of players (unlike his friend and colleague, John Williams). The great thing about Julian's playing was his power of communication with an audience. Despite the occasional squeak.