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."