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?