Sunday, February 20, 2011


Pope's Daughter loves son

Difficult not to raise an eyebrow or two when the name of Lucrezia Borgia comes up, recalling naughty things: "the Borgias are having an orgy to-night", "incest – the game the whole family can play" and the father saying to the mother after the son has been diagnosed as having an Oedipus complex "what does it matter as long as he loves his mother?".

It was the first night of a new production by English National Opera of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia (January 31). The programme book quotes historians who are now saying that this queen of scrapes and rapes became a loving mother in middle-age, a do-gooder who hadn't poisoned anybody for ever so long.

The plot and libretto are full of dotty antics, the composer knew he was on to a hot number, what with a Pope's daughter renowned for being a whore and a murderer. It was Gaetano's forty-sixth opera; when he composed it he was thirty-six years of age, had eleven years more to live with twenty-four more operas to come. In under forty years there were over forty productions world-wide after the successful première at La Scala, Milan.

Does the music rise above rum-ti-tum and the formulas current at that time (1833)? Yes, quite often, in particular, Lucrezia's last gasp aria and the contralto/trouser-role nobleman Orsini's second act Brindisi (one of the only operatic numbers Clara Butt sang, quite brilliantly too!), given in the Coli, well sung by the American mezzo Elizabeth deShong.

The title-role is long dramatic and brimfull of coloratura. Claire Rutter was up to snuff, carried it off superbly but with the occasional rasp. The tenor, little Oedipus-Schmedipus in the old story, sang bravely with good sound; he was also American, Michael Fabiano. With a little more personal sparkle, he could be a world beater.

Mike Figgis, noted film director, in his operatic debut, brought his projector with him, having made half-a-dozen film snippets (different cast) to add footnotes and background to the mores and deplores current in the Vatican. Often beautiful shots, a coupling and some grisly scenes were shown to 'till-readies' in the orchestral pit. Good idea, this, although some of the old operatic hands resented the celluloid intrusion.

Sets (Es Devlin) and costumes (Brigitte Reiffenetual) were lavish and a visual delight – bravo! Paul Daniel conducted a performance full of nuances and vitality. he also made the English version that was sung, o.k. except for a lot of 2011 words like 'crazy' and 'problem' that jarred a bit as Victor Hugo's original play is set in 1498. Orchestra and chorus in good fettle. A good evening, Donizetti lives.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011



Piers Lane is surely at the zenith of his career. The Australian is an artist and a virtuoso as well, provides all the Finger fertigkeit – finger-readiness – that is required but also gets to grip with the meaning of the music he plays, what 'Thomas Mann described as 'the music behind the song'. This was shown especially in his first encore, the familiar Chopin E flat Nocturne, which he delivered like a dream, a romantic poem that owed a lot to the style of the melodies of the operas that were all the rage in the ottocento, the first half of the nineteenth century, when the public swooned at dreamy melodies laced with virtuoso decorations called coloratura.

He began his Wigmore Hall recital January 25 – a packed house – with a handful of the hundreds of little dances that Schubert wrote, ländler that are gay, brisk, alternating with slow ones that catch your heart.

Then came the three Intermezzos and G minor Rhapsodie that make up the opus 119 written by Brahms in his last years when he seemed physically prematurely old. He once said that he never sent his works to the printer until they were 'unassailable'. I remember Alan Rawsthorne, teaching at Dartington, advising his students to study the work of Brahms. He didn't much care for the music but he had to admire the craftsmanship, how the wily old composer solved problems and turned awkward corners. I also recall hearing a pianist – professor of the old school – getting lost in that Rhapsody because he couldn't find the right modulation to lead back to the home key, so that the piece lasted for ten minutes instead of five or six, a feat of improvisation on his part. Piers played this as he did everything else in his recital, note and style perfect.

Opus 110, Beethoven's penultimate Sonata in A flat was played so that it dug deep but also demonstrated the composer's amazing way of intergrating (as Chopin also did) virtuosic decoration in music that is deeply serious; how did LvB manage to invest tonic and dominant progressions so that they sound like statements of spiritual faith?

The programme ended with magnificent playing of the four Ballades of Chopin. Heart, mind, soul, cannons decked with flowers, we got it all, especially in that pinnacle of Chopin's oeuvre, the final Ballade in F minor.

For his final encore, Piers Lane let his hair down and played Dudley Moore's variations on a jingle whose composer is not known: its seven notes have words; the first two are rude then "and the same to you". The late Dud's variations are a witty parody of Beethoven's early-to-middle style, aggressive, imitative, with final cadences ad nauseam. Its crude and funny and it sent us all home in a thoroughly good humour. (Two days late I realised that OF COURSE! The jingle is the first theme of Colonel Bogey.)


The next day in the Queen's Elizabeth Hall the Takacs, resident string quartet on the South Bank, gave one of their regular concerts in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Now unless one writes about the music played and the composers, a review of a Takacs concert these days is apt to be short and sweet. Once the words 'perfection' and 'faultless' have been set down, except, to mention the works played in the recital in question and perhaps mention the date of their next programme. it will be in the same hall on May 20 and will be an all-Schubert affair, with the big G major Quartet and the Trout quintet with double –bass and piano (ImogenCooper will do the tickling); o.k., see you there!

The Takacs now includes only two Hungarians – second fiddle and cello – but the quality remains as good as ever. It is a privelege to hear them. The items on January 25 were by Haydn, opus 71/1 in B flat, Bartok No. 3 and Smetana's E minor, From my Life.

Have you come across that story about Bartok in the twenties meeting Carl Nielsen? After playing some of his music to the Dane Bartok is said to have asked "does it sound modern enough?" but history doesn't tell us the tone of voice or the look on his face. If deadly serious it’s a rather damaging anecdote: if joking, its o.k. But would Bartok make jokes like that?