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.