Friday, 20 June 2008

A weekend of culture, Part III: Jansons and the Bavarians PLAY, again!

Another rather late review, and the third and final instalment of my November weekend in London. Part of the reason I haven't been in the greatest hurry to add this is that there isn't a vast amount to be added to the praise I heaped on Jansons and this fine ensemble when they came to Edinburgh last August.

This programme was, however, superior to the ones we had then: Haydn's symphony no.104 and Mahler's symphony no.5. Add to this that Jansons is one of the finest Mahlerians around, in my view, as evidenced by such recordings as his Oslo first symphony and his LSO sixth, and there was the potential for a special night.

The ranges of gestures that Jansons used to control the Bavarians during the Haydn was impressive, at times he would do nothing at all, when clearly their attention was best focused elsewhere and he had done the work in rehearsal, at others there would be a sweep or a marching action that was replicated in the ensemble's playing. The orchestra was somewhat scaled back to give more of a chamber feel, but they still had their wonderful richness. The minuet was not quite the focal point on which the work turned, in the way it would have been under Jochum but the finale was wonderfully exciting, with the timpani playing particularly well and a thrilling coda.

The Mahler is much more of challenge, and the first problem comes with the wonderful trumpet solo in the opening bars. From the programme I assume this was played by Hannes Laubin, who appears to be the principal, but I am open to correction. It was stunning. Taken at a slowish pace, with clipped phrasing and played with a precision that isn't found on most recordings, let alone a live concert. Jansons built the rest of the first movement solidly, without it entirely overwhelming, and held the tension well.

He let things go in the overwhelming second movement though, which built to a shattering climax with the triangle, a favourite part of mine, played to near perfection. Indeed, at this point I was almost ready to go home and I'm not sure how Jansons and the orchestra managed to carry on. The sound of the orchestra, the cellos in particular, was also stunning.

To the extent there were problems, they arose in the third movement, which is normally where they do. In the fifth it is fairly easy to make the 4th movement beautiful, and the finale exciting. The problem is that musically the first two movements can prove more of a climax than the finale. This is a problem for the Rattle/BPO recording and also for Haitink's live Concertgebouw reading. Charles Mackerras solves the problem with the RLPO by holding back in the earlier movements and building to the finale. Jordan, conducting the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, solved it by gradually ratcheting down the tension during the scherzo. Jansons had already passed the point where the Mackerras approach could be used, and he didn't follow Jordan as the start of the scherzo was not at all fierce. As a result the transition to the adagietto didn't really work. The other problem is that the movement contains, in effect, a miniature horn concerto, and while this was well enough played, next to the trumpet solo it paled. That said, the fourth movement, when it came, was divine. Jansons then built well from this into a thrilling finale.

All in all it was a good and solid performance, and from many it won a standing ovation. I don't think, given the third movement, it quite deserved that, nonetheless, this is an impressive combination and I will be attending as many of their concerts here over the next four years of their relationship as I can.

A weekend of culture, Part II: Aida at ENO, or why Tim Ashley wouldn't know a good thing if it danced naked in front of him

There is nothing so like a timely review. But in its absence, where's Runnicles whisks you back to November and the second instalment of a weekend trip to London, following hot on the heels (the concert, not the review) of the LA Philharmonic.

The continuing "own goal" curse is much in evidence at English National Opera at present. Hard on the heels of Sally Potter's controversial Carmen and an ill-conceived production of The Coronation of Poppea, we have a new staging of Verdi's Aida, which does neither the company, nor Verdi's masterpiece, any favours.

So sayeth Tim Ashley, writing in The Guardian. He is not only profoundly wrong, with which I have no problem, everyone is, after all, entitled to their own opinions, but he is also profoundly misleading. And I do have a problem with that. The impression gained from his review is that here is a production which flouts the text at every opportunity. In fact, the reverse is true. For once we get a production where characters singing about a sword actually wield one, as opposed to the briefcase one might expect to find in some productions that think they're cleverer than they in fact are. He lambasts the costumes as daft, but while I'm not Egyptologist they looked reasonably authentic (with the measure of artistic licence you might expect). Perhaps Mr Ashley might like to visit the British Museum and learn something in this regard. The final inexplicable thing about this review is that he's actually very positive about both the music and the choral singing, yet gives no balance. Even if I agreed with him about the production, given that, 2 stars would not be fair. Anthony Holden The Observer is similarly wide of the mark. The Telegraph has some sense (it feels disturbing to write those words), but by way of balance, to compliment my brother's review, here is the real score.

Let's tackle some of the objections made. Firstly, Mr Ashley suggests fashion designer Zandra Rhodes' costumes might make you think "Aida is about frocks and bling". Now, I will concede I'm no authority on Egyptian dress, but from what I do know, the picture she creates is vivid and roughly right. Similarly the sets: pyramids are pyramids. Perhaps this sort of thing is our critics' general problem with the production, for Rhodes and Davies a sword is a sword and a crown is a crown. They bring a visual spectacle that is entirely justified by both text and music. Where Mr Ashley sees the "gaudy", I see grandeur. Priest may be "stripped-to-the-waist, gold-skirted", but his complaint only causes one to wonder if he's ever set eyes on a hieroglyph. Some of his criticisms about the obviousness of wigs and the like may be true in the 5th row of the stalls; to the back of the gods they were not. Indeed, we did wonder if this kind of spectacle requires a little distance, and might have come to that conclusion, were it not for the fact that we knew people in the stalls who loved it too.

Then there is the magnificent triumph scene. Anything but "awkward". The elephant, elegantly constructed: a platform borne by four men, two more carrying the ears on sticks, another the head and the trunk. I don't do it justice in my description, but it moved with a grace that vividly brought the animal to life and captured the sheer dazzling scale that these events must have had. And did so in perfect time to the musical climaxes. Perhaps the critics attended earlier nights when things were not quite so taut. But there are other points to note: the production makes the ballets work, something that can be problematic. The triumph scene is an especially fine example since it does so via a reenactment of the battle.

The production also scores in the excellent lighting design of Bruno Poet, especially in the way the temple door closes in act three, or as the tomb fades in the finale, the set also closes in brilliantly. Indeed, the final act is moving as we feel not only the tragedy of both the lovers, but also that of Amneris. Aida's betrayal is also managed convincingly.

But what about the music, surely the most important aspect of any opera production (to which Mr Ashley gives so little weight in judging the production), after all, a bad production sung beautifully is not the disaster that the perfect production coupled with inept singing can be. Gwynne Howell is a fine Pharaoh and Iain Paterson is simply superb as the Ethiopian King. Initially Jane Dutton, as Amneris, Pharaoh's daughter, gave pause for thought; in Verdi it can be a very long night if the female lead is weak. But she had warmed up by Act II and sang creditably for the remainder of the evening. Claire Rutter's Aida was also good. As this is ENO, it was sung in English. Diction has been a significant problem there in recent years and while this was by no means perfect, glances at the surtitles were not as frequent as they have needed to be on some occasions. The other criticism that is frequently levelled at Verdi in English is that it sounds like a cousin of Gilbert and Sullivan, but that didn't seem the case here.

It's been said in many quarters that the appointment of Edward Gardner has been a good move for ENO, and these ears more than confirm it. There was plenty of drive and power to his reading, he never got lost in the ballets as can so often occur. Indeed, his mastery of the score rather made me wish that Chandos had been there taping it for Opera in English; sadly this seems unlikely as there is already a recording under the inferior baton of David Parry.

Far from another "own goal", this is precisely the kind of production that should be encouraged. The production returns to ENO next season, though not unfortunately under Gardner. It seems it sold well last time, so clearly the punters thumbed their noses at the critics. A well deserved success for ENO: more of the same please.

The SCO Season Finale

It must be a rarity for someone to greet the words "[insert name here] is unfortunately unable to conduct this week's concerts due to illness." with relief. Not, I hasten to add, out of any ill-will I bear Olari Elts; indeed, I hope he recovered speedily (this not particularly timely review refers to a concert given on 8th May). However, he has not much impressed me in the concert hall, and I had already decided to delete his appearances from my subscription next year.

But any relief was fairly short lived. His replacement, Andreas Spering, gave a performance that was at times extremely odd. According to Tumelty's review in The Herald, orchestra and conductor didn't get on well, with some in the orchestra feeling he had nothing to do with the performance. If I was them, I wouldn't want to advocate that line too loudly. The programme led off with Beethoven's 3rd symphony. I've said before that there has been too much music that Charles Mackerras has played recently with this orchestra, and much better; when there is so much to choose from this is odd. The eroica falls into this category. Somehow, I was in the back row of the main stalls (odd since for most concerts I've been at the front), still, this was actually some relief as like most conductors this season, Spering was unable to moderate his volume for the Queen's Hall. The vision of the symphony itself was downright bizarre, sounding almost as though it had been reworked for a purely string orchestra.

This was followed by Haydn's Nelson Mass (again Mackerras territory, though he has not done this work with them). Again volume was a problem. Indeed, Spering's approach seemed to be something of a sledgehammer one, which makes it all the odder that he apparently has roots in period practice. The soloists, including the excellent Karen Cargill, who sang so well in Das Lied von der Erde under Runnicles recently, were good, but Spering's accompaniment was poor. That said, there was some good playing, the trumpets in the Benedictus, for example. The Miserere nobis was excellently performed too, and the SCO Chorus was a solid as ever. But ultimately, it didn't really grab me, up to and including the final chord which sounded like a penultimate one. In the end I found more interest in trying to identify which member of the chorus's score was being reflected in a screen.

So what of the attempt, failed in the end by both circumstances within and outwith my control, to attend all of the SCO concerts this season. I learned a lot from it, but mainly that it was a mistake. I have sent in my form for next season. Despite my protestations about the manifest unsuitability of St Cuthbert's church for classical performance, it is still being used for the Cl@six series. I will not be attending these. Another pity is that the number of chamber concerts has dropped. Shockingly, Mackerras is only coming to Glasgow and Perth, so I'll be on the train for that. Other than that, I have mainly made savings by cutting out the Elts concerts. These will be more than compensated for by attending more from both the RSNO and BBC Scottish, not to mention getting to a few more things in London, the LSO season has some particularly interesting things.

A delayed birthday present - Ades and Isserlis at Aldeburgh 2008

The programme notes that the item before the interval will be Ades' new composition: Lieux retrouves, for cello and piano. Unfortunately, so busy is Ades, that this was not yet finished for Tuesday's concert. Doubly unfortunate since the programme informs us that it "was commissioned by John Makinson for Ginny Macbeth's birthday"; she, like the rest of us, will have to wait until next year. Still, Ades and Isserlis played a concert that was a fine gift even so.

They began with Debussy's Sonata (1915). I'm not always a fan of the composer, but Ades' sensitive accompaniment and Isserlis's fine playing made it very enjoyable. Better was to follow with Janacek's Pohadka [A Tale]. I was curious how Janacek's music, so richly coloured with brass in his orchestral and operatic compositions, might fare in a chamber setting. Brilliantly, is the answer. A wonderfully lyrical piece with an impressive range of texture and colour. Isserlis has recorded this, unfortunately his accompanist dreaded Olli Mustonen.

Ades' composition had been replaced by a Schumann piece, Violin sonanta no.3 in A minor, which Isserlis himself had transposed for the cello. It did not initially grab me, but improved as it went on. Isserlis displayed an impressive dexterity: originally written for Joachim, one of the great violinists of his age, it made large physical demands which were further amplified by the move to the larger instrument. However, occasionally, particularly in the final movement, it did seem like it might have benefited from more rehearsal.

After the interval, more Kurtag, this time four solo cello pieces from Jelek, jatekok es uzenetek [Signs, Games and Messages]. As with the composer's other work, I found it do be disjointed, lacking in structure and, in the last movement especially, horribly repetitive.

This was followed by Ravel's superb Deux melodies hebraiques. Originally this music set an Aramaic "Kaddisch" and a Yiddish verse. It shows: a simple yet moving piano accompaniment against which the rich and beautiful cello part evocatively sings.

More fun was the Poulenc Sonata for Cello which brought the concert to a close. The work balanced humour and grandeur, melodrama even, but in such a way that didn't reduce the work to the pastiche or joke it could have become. Here the piano and cello parts were much more of a conversation between equals, and superbly played. Credit too, to the page turner, who not only turned Ades' pages but also twice had to get up, cross the stage, and turn Isserlis's too. Between one such change the timing was quite tight, but he did it very well. Doubtless a Hesse student, but an anonymous one; one felt he deserved more recognition. On Wednesday we appealed for the identity of a member of the Gabrieli Consort so we could properly credit them (and received it within twelve hours), we should like to do the same for the unknown page turner, so if he, or anyone who knows him, is reading this, feel free to use the comment box below or send an e-mail via the link on the right.

All in all, a wonderfully enjoyable concert. As with Carolyn Sampson yesterday, a compelling and coherent programme of works. To be broadcast on Radio 3 on Wednesday 25th, it can be thoroughly recommended.

The encore came, we think, in the form of a nice piece by Faure.

What happened to the other three bagatelles - The Belcea Quartet and friends

I've been a fan of the Belcea Quartet ever since I first came across them at the Edinburgh Festival. They had something of a tendency to play rather epic programmes in their Queen's Hall concerts, which often ran past 1pm. Programmes that might include big quartets by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, or perhaps Schubert and Bartok. Indeed, I remember one of the latter when one member of Edinburgh's conservative listening public came out and said "Thank god for the Schubert", the Bartok had been exceptional.

The last time I saw them was in the 2006. Corina Belcea-Fischer was either just about to have, or had just had, her baby and was unable to play. The rest of the ensemble played one of the works (a Britten quartet with an oboist) and a substitute quartet the other. However, what always marked the group out for me, aside from the standard of their playing, was a sense of vitality and something of a firebrand quality. It exists too on their recording of the Britten quartets. Not, however, on their recent survey of Bartok's, which left me a little cold, and which is why I haven't booked to hear them do these at Edinburgh this summer.

Monday's concert was to be the first time I had seen them all together since, along with new cellist Antoine Lederlin. They started out with Schubert's quartet in A minor, D804. Now, it probably didn't help that for various reasons I was a little tired going in, but I found their account altogether too pretty and nice, precious almost. Where was the attack I had known them for, and which I know on The Lindsays' recording? Instead, here was something altogether dreamy. I wonder if this is representative of a new sound and direction for the group. If so, broadly, I think I preferred them before. Certainly the approach doesn't work for Bartok, though I can see that it might for Schubert and would want to withhold judgement until hearing again, as I think tiredness and expectations would not make it fair to do so now.

However, the Schubert was followed by the Belcea's first friend: Imogen Cooper playing Bela Bartok's Fourteen Bagatelles, sz.50, well, all except numbers seven to nine. A friend of the family, with whom Ms Cooper was staying, informs us the reason was time: the three run to about eleven minutes and the concert ran over two hours already. Their exclusion was a great shame, since the other eleven were brilliant. There was an energy and an excitement, and a comedy. A check on Amazon indicates she hasn't recorded these - someone get her to a studio post haste! The BBC, in their infinite wisdom, are broadcasting only highlights of this concert, such is their genius they are able to select these before it takes place. They have not picked this, wrongly.

After the interval Laura Samuel, the quartet's second violin, was ushered to a seat just in front of us in the auditorium: the second half was to be Schubert's quintet in A major, D667 The Trout. The three remaining Belceas and Cooper were joined by bassist Duncan McTier. At least initially the ensemble didn't quite seem to gel. The Belceas still seemed in rather relaxed mode, whereas Cooper was more up for it. Indeed, it struck me that one problem with the Trout, despite its regularity on the concert programme, is that it will always be performed by a scratch ensemble, which is normally a less than ideal situation. However, their styles meshed better as the work progressed and the finale was quite lovely, if marred by the applause that followed the false finish, it will be interesting to hear whether Radio 3 edits this out. Interestingly, a few years ago the Belceas recorded this with Ades, and seemed more energetic then.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

The Kurtag Limit - Aldeburgh 2008

In physics there are two ways in which materials deform - plastically and elastically. Perhaps the best way to think of this is one of those shatter resistant rulers you may have had at school, or indeed since. Bend it and, normally, it will spring back into place as if nothing has happened: it has just be deformed elastically, when the stress is removed it returns to its normal shape. However, apply too much stress and it will deform plastically, normally marked by the point being bent becoming more opaque; now when the stress is removed the ruler remains deformed. The elastic limit is the point at which you can apply maximum stress without suffering plastic deformation.

All very interesting, you may or may not say, but what does any of this have to do with music. I would propose a Kurtag Limit. This is the point at which a piece of music has stretched your interest to breaking point and past which will not regain it. I reached that point tonight at about the time violinist Hiromi Kikuchi had made her way across about one third of the stage at the Maltings.

I suppose that description requires further elucidation. This evening's concert was perhaps the centrepiece of this year's Kurtag celebrations, the programme was effectively all Kurtag. It began with the performance by Kikuchi of his HiPartita for solo violin, op.43. The stage was quite a sight: a line of music stands perhaps seven meters long, sheet music continuous from one to the next, microphones at the middle and either end and speakers behind. Kikuchi moved from one end to the other as she played. Some of the tones the instrument produced were interesting enough, but there was no obvious structure and the piece didn't seem to build anywhere. At one third of the way I lost interest. Things didn't improve when she reached the end: instead of stopping, she worked her way back to the middle. Now, clearly she is a very talented violinist. However, to these ears, those talents were being tragically misapplied. Mitsuko Uchida was in the audience, would that they'd got her on stage and we could have had a nice sonata from the two of them. A word must also be said about the amplification, there didn't appear to be any, so it must have been very subtly done, if at all (not least because given the microphones were placed in front of the speakers, feedback loops must surely have been a worry).

The not very full audience had thinned somewhat during the interval, onstage some microphones had gone and there was now an upright piano. Kurtag himself, along with his wife Marta, emerged to play Jatekok (which roughly translates as 'Games'), a series of miniatures alternately for two and four hands. Apparently intended as playthings for children with regard to the piano, which was the rational behind using the obviously amplified (though quite interestingly so) upright as opposed to a concert grand. In fairness to Kurtag, unlike in the HiPartita, I did not reach the Kurtag Limit; indeed, it was by far the most interesting of his pieces I have heard, though that isn't saying terribly much. The chemistry of this old married couple was reasonably engaging. It did not, however, make for great music. Neither did the quality of either's pianism, which was at best unremarkable. By interspersing his pieces with transcriptions from Bartok and Bach he did himself few favours with comparison. It seemed like they could have come in any order and none of them were especially evocative of anything, compare this to the coherence and vividness of Ades's similarly themed Living Toys. The most interesting of them Merran's Dream - Caliban detecting - rebuilding Mirranda's Dream only grabbed my attention by dint of the names apparently deriving from my favourite Shakespeare play, however the music did little to evoke them.

But the Kurtag groupies were out in force. As the lights dimmed at the end of the interval, they dashed forward to the many better seats that had become available and they cheered their hero to the rafters. Plenty of other people seemed to have enjoyed it too, but a good number gave what can best be described as polite applause. We got several encores and at one point I worried we might be trapped all night. The last was in some ways the most revealing: Bach's Sheep may safely graze. Incredibly beautiful and one of my favourite of his pieces, but the Kurtags' playing of it was fairly mundane, and at times arguably a clunky; compare this to Leon Fleisher's recent recording on his album Two Hands, which is of near desert island quality, the more impressive since for most of his professional career, and until fairly recently, he has been unable to play with his right hand.

The Kurtags maintained their air of modesty, yet a glance at his biography suggests this is of the faux variety. Far from the impression we had on Sunday that performance of his music was a shock, he has in fact been composer in residence twice with the BPO. I hope he didn't shake the hand of everyone in the orchestra when they played one of his pieces, as he did on Sunday, as that would have made for a very long evening.

Clearly this music appeals to some, though aside from finding the Kurtags a charming couple, nobody, the programme notes include, has provided me further enlightenment as to why this may be (they are welcome to do so below). If there is another celebration of his work in the future, your correspondent will steer well clear.

Escape doesn't come yet, though. Tomorrow, Aimard plays some of Jatekok interspersed in some of Bach's Art of Fugue.

Pianos as Cows - Carolyn Sampson at Aldeburgh 2008

The cow reference, I hasten to add, being nothing whatever to do with Sampson herself, but rather referring to the second of Barber's Three Songs, op.45.

After Sunday's somewhat indifferent recital, to these ears anyway, which are apparently in something of a minority, by Robert Holl, Carolyn Sampson was a breath of fresh air. This time the venue was another Suffolk church, at Orford (pictured) and with only marginally more comfortable seats.

She sang a varied programme, with a broadly French theme, starting with Debussy's Ariettes oubliees. I'm not always a fan of his music, but these were very nice, and helped by her strong and rich voice. Better was to follow, though, from Bizet. His three songs scored over Debussy's in the wit of their poetry. The first two, Adieux de l'hostess arabe and Ma vie a son secret, were good enough but the third, La coccinelle (The Ladybird), was brilliant, telling of a naive you man missing his first kiss because an insect has caught his eye instead. "Cretin", says the ladybird. To the performance of all these three was a characterisation and an engagement with the audience: outgoing where Holl's performance was internalised. She's sung opera, and this makes me want to hear see in something, as I suspect she acts as well as she sings. The first half was rounded off with Poulenc's Airs chantes, four brief songs, well delivered.

The texts to all of these had not been included in the programme, fortunately a handout was provided. However, unlike Edinburgh programmes, there was no appeal to turn pages quietly (or indeed not at all, since care had been taken to ensure no song had been split between pages). Much rustling might have been saved.

After the interval we had a change of language with Barber's Three Songs, op.45. Originally composed for arguably the greatest lieder singer of them all, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, so doubtless they had been transposed. The suited Sampsons' voice wonderfully, however. The first and third were nice enough, but the middle song A green lowland of pianos which envisaged the instruments as cows, including going to the concert hall to be milked, was a triumph of Lear-esque nonsense. Why could we not have had the text for this? The more so since we didn't catch quite every word, doubtless the use of English had led to this misjudgement on behalf of the programme/handout editors.

These were followed by more French, this time from Britten's Quatre chansons francaises. Composed in 1928, when the composer was a mere fourteen, not that they show it, and dedicated to his parents' wedding anniversary. Again these were wonderfully sung. The concert finished with a similarly fine reading of Walton's Three songs (1932). It was a varied and yet very coherent programme.

They were well received and gave us an encore by Reynaldo Hahn, A Chloris, which was perhaps the most beautiful thing of the afternoon. This was in no small part down to the piano part, superbly played by the afternoon's accompanist, Jonathan Papp, whose name I have deliberately not mentioned until now. He was everything Jansen wasn't for Holl. At times he found incredible beauty in the scores and yet supported his soloist and never stole the limelight. One of the better accompanists I have heard in recent years. I know that in the past I have complained that I dislike encores, and for some works they are inappropriate, but in a programme such as this they have their place. Sampson also announced it, just as well since we'd never had guessed.

Sampson, a charming performer, was a little self-concious about her pregnancy, twice apologising to the audience for having to leave the stage for water between each group of songs. She needn't have: she seemed no different in this regard from most lieder singers, and her voice needed no excuses.

The afternoon's one blight, aside from programme rustlers and numbing chairs, was the gentleman who was permitted to bring his dog to the concert, which jangled its collar a fair amount in the second half. I don't begrudge this of guide dogs, but that wasn't the case here and, frankly, the ushers should have been more insistent in their conversations with him.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Aldeburgh 2008 - Britten versus Purcell

Tonight's programme from Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players had a fairly simple theme: Hail Bright Cecilia. Both Purcell and Britten set words concerning St Cecilia and so it probably seemed like a good idea to lump them altogether in one programme.

Now, I should probably put my cards on the table: a few works such as the Funeral Music for Queen Mary aside, I am not the world's greatest fan of Purcell. I like Britten very much though, and on this occasion the comparison did Purcell no favours.

The programme led off with his Ode for St Cecilia's Day: Welcome to all the Pleasures. It didn't really seem to build to anything and seemed very samey. I find baroque music often can, Handel has similar dangers if not done well, and it requires either a degree of oomph or to find something special in the ornamentation to avoid this. McCreesh and the Gabrielis did not seem to. In addition, despite it being a fairly short piece, the choir and the soloists kept getting up, sitting down and moving around on the rostra to not much effect other than a lot of clunking about. The programme, normally so good in this regard, did not print the words. A shame because the diction was such that it would have been useful.

The work appeared even poorer when set next to Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia, op.27. His first key advantage is that the text is by Auden, whose words are a cut above those that were audible of Purcell's librettist. This time round not only was the diction better but we also had the text to help us along. The piece is for choir only, and quite magical: the way the soloist moves in and out of synchronisation with the chorus, the beautiful round singing. It is simply captivating. The soprano soloist, Grace Davidson, sang superbly with a beautifully toned voice. (Like all the evening's soloists, she was a member of the consort, and thus her name was not known to me. We posted the following appeal "If she, or anyone who can name her, is reading this, we would like to credit her properly." and within 12 hours some kind sole from the Gabrieli consort had provided it via the comment below, our thanks, and our astonishment you read this.)

After the interval it was back to Purcell, and this time his slightly later Ode for St Cecilia's Day: Hail, Bright Cecilia. A longer piece, it dragged even more than the first. Again, it didn't really seem to build to anything (except the timpanist finally getting to do something). There was even more standing up and wandering around for no readily apparent reason. Frankly, I was rather bored.

The use of period instruments didn't especially endear them to me either. As a rule, my reaction when hearing a period instrument is that I can tell why we have modern ones now. While I felt the choir was pretty good, I had reservations about the orchestra who didn't seem quite as sharp. That said, the harpsichordist was particularly good and the two trumpeters were superb (the more so as period trumpets are difficult to play with no fluffs). I didn't care to watch McCreesh, who flounced about while conducting, rather a little like a marionette.

All in all, slightly disappointing. I'd have enjoyed it just as much, if not more so, if all we'd had had been the Britten.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Alfred Brendel's final Scottish concert (well, nearly)

On Thursday 21st August Alfred Brendel plays what will be his final concert in Scotland. But such is our foresight, we here at where's Runnicles are able to bring you the review two months ahead of time. Actually, if truth be told, we are in fact able to bring you the very late review of an identical programme he played four months ago in Glasgow, but shush!

The programme was the similar mix of composers I have come to expect from a Brendel recital over the last few years: Haydn's, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, the evening's particular attraction being the D960, long a favourite, and of which Brendel has one of the finest accounts on disc (his live reading, pictured, not the studio one).

He led off with Haydn's variations in F minor, Hob.XVII/6. The clarity and dexterity of his playing belied his age, in particular the easy way right hand crossed left. The majestic and delicate close was played in such a way that not a smattering of premature applause was heard. Brendel, as ever, retains a commanding stage presence.

This was followed by Mozart's sonata in F major K533. Here again he brought incredible delicacy to bear and yet also impressive speed. The last time I heard Brendel, I worried that his memory is not what it was, but there was no trace of such concerns here.

The interval was programmed to come at this point. The moment I saw this, I knew this was a mistake: the D960 deserves to be on its own. Brendel knew so too, and followed straight on into Beethoven's sonata in E flat major, op.27/1. This was a tour de force which few could manage as well. Whether he was playing slowly or quickly, whether displaying delicacy or weight, he did it equally well. This was simply masterful pianism.

After the interval he gave an account of the D960 similar to his more recent live recording, only better for the immediacy of live concert. It was a reading that had all the qualities he displayed while playing the Beethoven and more: pauses were held to excellent effect, changes in tempo were executed in the most masterful way and tension was built bringing your reviewer to the edge of his seat. Yes, there may have been the odd wrong note, but in a live performance of such an epic work it would be hard for there not to be. Brendel's artistry rendered such points moot.

It was an extraordinary evening. And then he played two encores. I have complained about this before: I do not care for encores, especially after a piece like the D960. I couldn't identify either of the pieces (though one may well have been Bach), but given what we had had, they added nothing.

where's Runnicles in Rotterdam

Runnicles, in Rotterdam. Well, no, at least, not so far as we are aware. But your authors were there on Friday the 6th June. The reason was our attendance of a rare performance of Messiaen's only opera, St Francis of Assisi (review to follow), in Amsterdam the following day. Our host's brother is the Amsterdam conservatory trained pianist of a jazz band called Quincy who were playing in the semi-final of the Dutch Jazz Competition held there. We had thought of attending the Concertgebouw, still an ambition, but a programme of Messiaen and Bruckner the night before St Francis didn't seem the best idea.

After a day wandering round the lovely city of Rotterdam, including some fascinating architecture such as the cube houses (pictured, though my sister-in-law-elect took much better photographs than I managed) we made our way over to an art house cinema where the concert was to take place.

Each of the five bands played a song of 3 songs lasting fifteen to twenty minutes. Despite the small room all were amplified, which I think wasn't always necessary. Oddly, especially given the scene in Pulp Fiction which says you can take beer into Dutch movie theatres, no alcohol was allowed in the auditorium, surely antithetical to a good jazz concert.

Quincy had drawn the short straw of being first up. They played very well, and were a cohesive ensemble. If I had a reservation it would be that the balance wasn't idea - though this is likely to do with the amplification, but I would like to have heard the piano more prominently. There style was very accessible and what might be termed smooth jazz on JazzFM. A competition is never an idea setting to hear anyone in, but I don't think I'd mind hearing more from these guys. And you can too, since they have several CDs.

They were followed (after a link in Dutch, of which I was the third recipient of a Chinese whispered translation from our host Anna) by form farmer Anne Guus Terrhius and his trio. They had a very talented drummer but I didn't really think the styles of the band members really gelled, to me they were near the antithesis of the single voiced Bill Evans trios. I also found their compositions a little sprawling.

Before the interval it was the turn of Mike Roelofs Band. Again, they didn't really seem to gel until their third and final piece which really came together, not least with an impressive trumpet solo and some nice piano work, with the pianist reaching inside to mute the instrument.

A drink or two at the bar and we were back for the stylings of Eject the No, a trio comprising two electric guitars and drummer. They led off with a piece called handkerchief, so called because the lead guitarist was muffling his strings with one at the outset. The whole band, but particularly the bass guitarist looked rather as though there were completely stoned, and the music did nothing to dispel this notion. The pieces were abstract and rambling. There was a strong feeling amongst those I was with that this wasn't jazz. Having steeped myself in the likes of Miles Davis, Marcus Miller, Herbie Hancock and other practitioners of jazz/rock fusion I was less sure. The second piece was somewhat more coherent and I saw more merit to it, the drummer was particularly fascinating, for example bowing his cymbals.

Lastly came the Sandro Fazio Band. Looking to my notes I see all I have written of this, from memory, sextet, was that aside from a decent alto saxophonist they were rather bland.

We retired to the bar while the jury made their deliberations. In the end they put Anne Guus, Mike Roelofs and, controversially Eject the No through (along with a fourth group from the other semi-final). I found all these decisions a little odd. While Mike Roelofs Band had done a good last number, the first two had been lacklustre and that kind of inconsistency shouldn't merit a final place. I suppose the unity of voice which I didn't find in Anne Guus is a matter of taste, likewise Eject the No. That said, there was wide disappointment that Quincy hadn't made it. It was wondered if their place in the final last year had meant the judges wanted to give others a shot, but that seems unfair since it isn't one of the criteria. Perhaps they were too accessible, certainly the presence of Eject the No lends credence to this. However, bias not withstanding, it does seem wrong that the most consistently good band didn't make it through.

I don't know how typical this was of the Dutch jazz scene, but in general this seemed to be fairly smooth and I would have liked a few more numbers of the toe-tapping variety. As usual, I found myself at odds with the competition judges. Plus ca change.

The final will be held at the North Sea Jazz Festival on 12th July (while I will be attending Charles Mackerras conducting Mozart's Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Opera House).

Hungarian nonsense and Living Toys - Ades and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group

Our second report from 2008's Aldeburgh festival features the first concert from the Snape Maltings. Thomas Ades led the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in an adventurous programme of modern music, one piece of which was finished only this year and even the oldest was only complete in the year of my birth.

This was a bold programme even by Aldeburgh's standards, and the hall was at best half full. Perhaps they had been put off by one name on bill which filled me with trepidation: Gerald Barry. I first came across him in a 2005 concert at the same venue, also led by Ades which, alongside some of his own music and a fine Beethoven 4th symphony, featured a piece called L’Agitation des Observateurs, Le Tremblement des Voyeurs, which is best described as making Chinese water torture seem like a soak in a hot bath filled with Radox. The idea behind the piece was about waves washing up on the shore and being slightly different each time. It wasn't. Instead the same notes were repeated over and over again. It was truly painful. My dislike of the composer was further exacerbated by one of the most pretentious programme notes I've come across where Barry answered a question as to what any of that had to do with the voyeurism of the title:

When the postman knocks with a letter you don't open the door and say "Why?"

Similarly with the title of this piece. It came to me and I accepted it.

It didn't call for an explanation. Everything is in the title.

If he says so, would that he had taken the package and marked it return to sender.

The prospect of more such fare filled me with some dread. Beethoven is a setting of three of the composer's letters to his immortal beloved. Thankfully it is much more enjoyable. However, the flaws of the previous work are still evident, with the settings not being especially interesting while remaining deeply repetitive; however, the repetitions are fairly colourful orchestrally. There is a nice interlude between letters two and three where Beethoven, the bass Stephen Richardson, snorts contemptuously at a Bertini etude. Most bizarrely, however, letter three is set the tune of Oh come all ye faithful, it was written on July 7th so if there was a reason for this the programme note does not provide it, perhaps our friend the postman once again holds the key. This was a nice orchestration, and Barry nicely bundles the platitudes at the close of the letter into a mad rush. The ensemble under Ades play it very well, though I can't help but notice the most interesting moments musically are not those composed by Barry himself. I also think he's missed a trick in quotations from the great master, or lack thereof.

After the interval came Kurtag, whose works are being celebrated this festival in a density the composer has likely never seen, and likely never will again. Messages of the Late Miss R. V. Troussova is a song cycle of twenty or so miniatures and was performed with the addition of soprano Natalia Zagorinskaia. Orchestrally this was rather of the whirr-plonk school, you felt he'd brought in everything including the kitchen sink, and it often didn't feel necessary. There wasn't enough variety either, as the piece wore on. Too often her voice was called to adopt a tone akin to a fire alarm. I felt no great sense of structure. The ensemble once again played exceptionally though. The man himself, who was present, is clearly overjoyed by the celebration, and went round shaking the hands of all the players; it is as well this was not a symphony orchestra. If the work is representative of the composer it could be a long festival, particularly Thursday's concert, dedicated to him entirely.

The last piece was an early Ades composition from 1993: Living Toys. It was quite something. The evocations were vivid, especially of the Angel, the Soldier and the Battle. The piece shifted organically from one section to the next, and yet it was always crystal clear when it had moved on. A particular highlight was H.A.L.'s Death, inspired by the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of course, in that H.A.L. sings Daisy, Daisy as Bowman switches him off, becoming more and more computerised and electronic as his capacities diminish. As might be expected, Ades' take is rather different. He finds an emptiness of space that calls to mind the solo horn Interstellar Call from Messiaen's Des Canyons aux Etioles.... The CD was for sale in the foyer, I held off purchasing until hearing the piece and had to dash off afterwards, but when I return tonight, I will be making a purchase.

But the concert had, rather unfortunately, saved the best for first. I first encountered Ligeti at the 2005 Edinburgh festival with his piece for 100 metronomes - these are arranged in four squares of 25 and set going about ten minutes before the performances is due to start. The audience enters and listens as they slowly wind down and the sound changes as they stop. It's glorious. With Pipes, Drums and Reed Fiddles is arguably better. The programme notes that he set poems by Edward Lear, as a lover of The Jumblies and The Owl and the Pussycat I was thrilled. This is, however, different Hungarian nonsense poetry; but any disappointment was short lived. The array of percussion across the stage was awesome and reminiscent of a BBC Young Musician percussion final. The four members of the ensemble danced around from vibraphone to dustbin and at the front wonderfully charismatic mezzo Katalin Karolyi held us in thrall. Her characterisation of the mountain in the first piece was to die for. And whether the poem was translatable or not she was bursting with life. While there was perhaps the widest range of instruments of the evening, it was all judged to perfection and never felt unnecessary: no kitchen sink syndrome here. Whether it was xylophones and bowed cymbals or just three whistles or four harmonicas it seemed exactly right. The pieces were silly but wonderfully so. This was modern music at its best. The rapturous reception was well deserved. I don't know if a recording exists, but if it does I will find it. In the meantime, the performance appears on Radio 3's Hear and Now on 28th of June, listen for the Ligeti if nothing else.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Aldeburgh 2008 - Robert Holl sings Schubert

After two days in a row of opera in London, it's the train up to Suffolk for this year's Aldeburgh festival. Unfortunately I missed Aimard's concert last night, so my first experience is an all Schubert lieder recital. This concert was out at the very picturesque Blythburgh Church (well, it would have been picturesque had it not been covered in scaffolding).

Unfortunately, Robert Holl does not really come across as a leader singer, his biography lists big Wagnerian roles and his voice sounds it. Big and loud, too loud in row E, and somewhat rough around the edges in a way which while it probably doesn't matter for Hans Sachs certainly does here. One wonders if too much of that sort of role has put lieder out of reach. The voice is particularly thin and unattractive in the quieter moments.

These were mainly later songs, mostly in the D700s and I am not always mad keen on the poetry, which is uninspiring and repetitive, my favourites in this regard are those of Schiller, such as The Diver, D77 which tend to be the earlier ones. Possibly this makes them less musically interesting, which is why I don't seem to come across them as much in concert.

Rudolf Jansen's piano accompaniment is very ordinary. The best piano in these settings brings out some of the genius Schubert displays in his sonatas and yet remains sensitive to the voice. This didn't really do either.

It wasn't a bad concert per se, but it was fairly unremarkable.

Don Carlos at the Royal Opera House - Beg, borrow or steal a ticket if you have to*

*Please note, we here at Where's Runnicles are not actually advocating theft, and our title should not be construed in this manner, it is merely a turn of phrase. However, as the following review will elaborate, this production is a superb evening at the theatre and you should do everything legally in your power to obtain a ticket if you don't have one already.

But before I get down to the review proper, two rants. Rant one is that last night's audience were fairly awful: whispering, the gentleman next to me who had to clear his throat every two minutes, the gentleman next to him who coughed without putting a hand over his mouth, or making any effort to limit the volume. Indeed, such was the level of coughing you would have thought either that summer and autumn had got lost in a weird time warp and we were in the midst of winter flue season or that there had been an outbreak of SARS. They also insisted on applauding after arias, often when the music had still to finish, and carried on when Pappano got going again. If Verdi hadn't wanted us to hear those notes he wouldn't have written them, so please people, if you must clap, at least wait for the quiet. Of course, no one involved in the production should be blamed for that.

The second rant is more serious and concerns the version of the score in use. Now, in fairness to those involved, there do exist more editions of Don Carlos than Ben and Jerry's have flavours of ice cream [Editor's note - it seems unlikely there are quite this many versions of Don Carlos]. Even if the question of French of Italian is set to one side, there is the four act and the five act, then the question of which cut scenes to restore. Fortunately Pappano adopts a five act version. A programme note by Christopher Wintle sets out the reasons for choosing the 1886 Modena which restores the shortened Paris act one (though not the opening chorus that was cut before the first performance). The reasons for this choice are than this was Verdi's last thinking on the subject. While this is may be true, I don't think it's a justification. Verdi might well have put more material back in had an opera house wanted to do it that was less concerned with length. I quibble more over some cuts than others, but there are two which simply do not make dramatic sense, and that should surely be the overriding criterion.

The first cut is from the very start of the opera. The Modena version opens with Carlos in the forest at Fontainebleau, but cut before the Paris premier was a scene were Elizabeth, wandering, comes upon a group of woodcutters and their wives who lament their awful situation, which owes something to the war. This cut matters not so much because it's beautiful music, though it is, but rather because at the end of act one the King of France has promised Elizabeth in marriage to King Philip of Spain to settle the peace agreement. Philip, however, wants Elizabeth to marry him willingly. In the meantime, of course, she has met and fallen in love with Carlos. When faced with this choice, there is a brief encouragement from the court before she picks Philip. However, to me, the suffering she has seen, and wants to alleviate, explain that choice convincingly in a way the Modena text does not.

The second cut is even more critical. During the ball (and the ballet) Elizabeth and Eboli swap masks. This causes Carlos to make love to Eboli, believing her to be the queen, with disastrous consequences. In the Modena version we jump straight to the tryst and have to rely on a programme note informing us he's received a note - but what's given him to think it's from Eboli, it isn't very satisfying. You could happily cut the ballet and still have a sensical scene at not too huge a cost in time.

Along the way the title seems to have become Carlo when in Italian, not Carlos. That said, Verdi continued to call it Don Carlos in its first Italian productions, and in this one his grandfather's tomb had the name Carlos embossed on it, which makes a Carlo title seem silly. To me, and throughout this review, it will always be Don Carlos, no matter what Covent Garden and others may choose to call it.

For the record, as far as the Italian or French question goes, I have very much enjoyed performances in either and, to be honest, as long as the singers can cope (and that's a big if - Abbado's La Scala performance is something of a train wreck as the cast fail in their attempts to grapple with the French, not helped by the absence of a language coach, or certainly one who was up to the task). However, if the choice is good French or good Italian, I'm not sure I have a preference, the music seems to respond well to both. I wonder what English would be like? After Gardner's Aida, I'd be more than curious to hear him have a go.

Right, now that all that's out of the way, Saturday's performance can be considered. From the moment the curtain rises, it is clear we're getting a traditional production. Indeed, under Nicholas Hytner's direction and Bob Crowley's designs we get a faithful and literal production, something all too rare these days and the more welcome for it. The sets and most costumes are uniformly beautiful and well done. The forest at Fontainebleau is created with vivid but slightly pole-like white trees, these work their way upstage until they blend into a backdrop drawn in the same fashion. There is a white carpet, representing the winter snow with a black path snaking through like a river (and showing those responsible for the Parsifal golf course how this sort of thing should be done). Carlos, played by Rolando Villazon, is lent an unfortunate resemblance to Edmund Blackadder (think the Elizabethan one) by his costume. His acting is a little wooden, as too is that of Marina Poplavskaya as Elizabeth. But the singing is what really counts. Now, someone once remarked that Don Carlos is easy to do: all you need is the six best singers in the world. There is a lot of truth to that [though you also need an excellent conductor, chorus, orchestra and budget - Ed.]. It is next to impossible to assemble such a dream cast. Villazon is good, though he doesn't always have quite the volume at the loudest moments. Poplavskaya's voice seemed rather hollow early on, but this improved and by act five I found her utterly compelling. Pumeza Matshikiza, as Elizabeth's page Tebaldo, was much less successful. I feel a bit bad criticising her: it was announced that she was suffering from back trouble and would sing from a chair at the side of the stage. I feel strongly that this should not be permitted. This is at least the second time I have seen and heard it, the balance of the voices does not fit and the actor just looks plain silly. I can see why a singer might want to do this (not least as the performance was being recorded and so there may well have been a financial implication to her) but I don't feel it serves the audience well and I can't think Opus Arte were too happy. Not only was the balance odd, but her voice was rather shrill. Still, she has a mercifully small role. The chorus were excellent though, and well directed: there was a wonderful flourish of cloaks being laid down in a manner than would have pleased Walter Raleigh as Elizabeth is borne to her litter. They sang well too. Pappano's conducting is harder to pin down. At first it sometimes felt a little underwhelming, but then when the fireworks sounded, he found fireworks in the score. Indeed, he, and the orchestra, were particularly impressive in the climaxes. There was a great sense of drama and pageant as they processed off stage into the rear wall (though they might have done better to walk slower or drop the curtain faster, as it did start to look a little silly as they all ran into each other).

Act two's scenes were similarly fine. Now that we're in Spain rather than France the costumes give us a different sense of place. The dimly lit monastery features a huge tomb for Carlos's grandfather, also Carlos, his name emblazoned across it, which complete with statuettes looks more like the Ark of the Covenant. As the scene progresses this moves across the stage and a wonderful line of columns drops down silently, which get smaller as they retreat upstage. The elderly priest, who doubles up as the voice of Carlos V when he appears at the end, is superb, but there is arguably a little too much by way of monks processing. Simon Keenlyside's Rodrigo was little short of astonishing. Long one of my favourite singers, not least because in addition to his fine voice he can really act.

The scene then transformed to the exterior and a ruby coloured pyramid (possibly the most adventurous bit of set) with a wonderfully lit sky background. As the scene progressed this turned a deeper red towards a stunning dusk. A job extremely well done from lighting designer Mark Henderson. Having done backstage work, albeit in an amateur context, I know whereof I speak. I found Sonia Ganassi's Eboli much less convincing. Her voice seemed rather haughty and her aria as the court waits for the Queen had none of the breathtaking beauty that Fedora Barbieri found for Giulini fifty years ago. Indeed, the staging here was the one area where I think WNO beat this production (though their Eboli was worse as she struggled with the French). Still, I was clearly in the minority as she got quite an ovation. Ferruccio Furlanetto's Philip was superb though. He and Keenlyside complemented each other wonderfully, their scene being a real highlight. When he sang "beware the inquisitor" all I could think was that I could hardly wait.

Prior to Act three we received another announcement from the management, that Villazon had suffered an allergic reaction but would soldier on. The curtain rises for act three and, having dispensed with the ball we are left with Carlos and Eboli meeting in an alley of trees, projecting outwards in a v shape. I've noted above why I don't think this works, and that may be why the scene as a whole didn't grab me. When Posa threatens to kill Eboli, I didn't quite believe him, the one chink in Keenlyside's acting armour. The singing between them is good though. As they leave a wall drops and rises impressively soon to reveal a vastly different set. At the back a gold palace has been flown in and stage left is a fabric screen with Jesus's face, crown of thorns on his head. The mob make for a stunning choral entrance and Poppano ratchets up the tension throughout the scene for a thrilling conclusion. The monks lead on the condemned whose white costumes, a little reminiscent of the KKK, perhaps, have fabric flame patterns. At first I thought this was how they would symbolise burning them alive, but since they in the end use real fire that can't be it, as a result they look odd. The Priest Inquisitor and the herald are both good and the voice of heaven, Anita Watson, is superb, and well placed for a nicely ethereal effect. Time and again the drama is almost overwhelming, as when Rodrigo demand's Carlos's sword. Then, in stunning climax the lighting changes and we can see past Jesus's face to the pyre it was hiding, which ignites most impressively, though the actors playing the condemned have now been replaced by dummies.

Act four's set is much simpler, walls at the back and stage left form a vast room, walls that are rather like a portcullis (only with the holes very small and the wood in between much wider). There are a few free standing candlesticks (the real candles are a nice touch, Philip tell us they're burning down and, by the time the Inquisitor has left, they are out), a desk, some chairs and a shrine. There is a tenderness to Pappano's conducting at the outset. Philip's insomnia driven aria is touching and moving after his power and coldness earlier in the opera and display an awesome range from Furlanetto, he received a big and deserved ovation. Eric Halfvarson hobbles onto the stage, supported by two monks, as the Inquisitor. He is every bit as powerful and chilling as the part demands and as he leaves the throwaway "perhaps" as Philip pleads for him to forget their meeting leaves no doubt as to where the power truly lies. Elizabeth's voice is more convincing here, her faint dramatic, and Eboli better matched to the scene.

Another portcullis wall drops at the front, the props are removed, it lifts back up and we are in Carlos's cell, a line of halberdiers penning him in. There is a coldness to Posa's murder (as a monk whispers to a soldier who turns and shoots - you could almost blink and miss it) and his concern for Flanders moves to the last. Philip's sorrow at the death is palpable as he asks who will return him. Posa's sacrifice and the ultimate futility of it is one of the great aspects of this tragedy. Pappano wisely doesn't stop here, as Giulini did in 1958, and the mob arrives, the rear wall rising part way to allow them in. Such is Halfvarson's performance that you well believe this infirm man could quell them.

Act five is set as act two, in the monastery, though the tomb has been moved more prominently in relation to the pillars. Villazon and Poplavskaya gave arguably their performances of the evening, and despite Villazon seeming a little pale, he managed remarkably given the circumstances. This act can sometimes drag in the wrong hands, no so with Pappano who kept a firm grip, and then delivered a knock-out blow with the death of Carlos and the appearance of Carlos V.

This is a long opera, but thanks to Poppano's conducting, singing that is for the most part good or great and Hytner's superb production it never drags. Not only does it compel, but it is musically and visually beautiful and a real piece of theatre dramatically. Coming out I felt it was about the best night I'd had in an opera house, comments I overheard seemed the same. That probably isn't true, no performance is quite that, but it was certainly up there with the Glyndebourne and Mackerras Makropulos Cases, The Death of Klinghoffer, St Francis of Assisi (last weekend in Amsterdam, review to follow) and the Scottish Opera Ring. The Mackerras is an interesting comparison because, of course, while musically it was probably the greatest, production wise it wasn't. There will always be some nagging flaw somewhere, but this is to all intents an purposes as good as it gets. Tickets are like gold dust, but if you get the chance it is one to see. If not, Opus Arte were recording, I can't wait for the DVD.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Powder Her (ahem) Face, newish opera from Ades

Here at Where's Runnicles we're big fans of Thomas Ades, both as a conductor and composer, not to mention for his work at the Aldeburgh festival. Sadly, this year's event, from which I will be reporting shortly, will he his last as director.

It seems he is moving to bigger things: a production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress with him at the helm is due to open shortly at the Royal Opera. In the meanwhile, there is a near sell-out production of his first opera Powder Her Face. Tickets for this were hard to come by, not least as it is in Covent Garden's Lindbury theatre, a small (the website claims 400 seats, but it looked fewer to me) studio theatre buried underground in what used to be the bowels of the flower hall. It's a nice enough place, though it doesn't appear ideal from a technical perspective, particularly in terms of from where you can light it, but this is fairly common in studio theatres.

The opera tells the story of the fall from grace, to the extent she ever had it, of a notorious duchess. The synopsis in the programme is intentionally vague, for example referring to the infamous fellatio scene as the duchess giving "the Waiter the friendly welcome which has earned her such popularity among the staff". We begin in 1990, as the duchess discovers two staff making fun of her, the electrician miming the aforementioned sex act on the TV remote control as the maid collapses in sung hysterics. We then jump back to 1934, prior to the duke and duchess meeting and are given to understand that the two are as bad as one and other. Then forward through the wedding, the affairs, the divorce and to her eviction from the hotel for non-payment of bills.

The set is interesting. A large white staircase thrusts steeply down towards the audience, the stage is littered with giant tubes of makeup, eyeliner brushes and a compact. The steps themselves cleverly double as cupboards out of which the singers pull most of the props they need. The compact opens up to reveal the duchess (though has to keep spinning round so she can climb in and out unseen).

Ades' music is as interesting as would be expected. There are lovely touches as his score provides phone rings or the rattling of type writers. The South Bank Sinfonia play well under Timothy Redmond. The score also underlines the drama well, unlike some this genuinely conveys shock or other emotions in accord with the script. The the trouble is, while the drama may want to shock, it just doesn't. Nudity on the British stage has long since ceased to be shocking, in these days of Puppetry of the Penis and Harry Potter baring all, a naked man rising up from between the actor's legs an the duchess mimes oral stimulation doesn't really do so. Rather than shocking, it tends just to leave me thinking either, rather you than me, or, it must be colder than I thought, often both. The last time stage nudity shocked me was at the Edinburgh Festival ten years or so ago in a play that featured two naked men doing various things. But now I don't think even something like that would. Time and again we see it - the duke puts on the stockings the maid has removed and all I can think is that he's laddered them. It doesn't help that the actors seem a little embarrassed themselves - I'm sure that's why the duke is wearing underwear beneath his kilt, which get pulled down each time he and the maid do it. This wouldn't matter, but the production doesn't really convince as witty burlesque either.

Another problem is Ades' setting of the vocal parts. In particular Rebecca Bottone as the maid struggles with the high pitch rapid singing - it's not that she sings wrong notes, but that you can't make out a lot of the words. This is also a problem for Alan Ewing as the duke/all-older-male-parts as he delivers his verdict in the divorce trial. Surtitles were required. I made out around half the words, others fared much less well.

Dramatically, the first act does go on a bit, the second scene in 1934 doesn't seem to serve much purpose, but then I couldn't hear many words, and the grace's indiscretion in scene 5 rather goes on. The second act is much tauter, though I'd like to have heard the verdict audibly. The penultimate scene in 1970, as the duchess gives an interview, works best. The actors' hear seem to be enjoying it in a way that doesn't always seem the case in the sexual burlesque. There is a lovely moment as the maid/all-other-non-duchess-female-parts brings on a chair the rear two legs of which have been shortened so it can sit on the stairs. She then proceeds to conduct an interview which goes wrong beautifully: the tape jams and the pencil is strung to the clipboard in such a way that she cannot reach the bottom of the page.

More generally, it doesn't really help that none of the characters provoke the slightest sympathy, by the end of the opera I couldn't really care less what's happened to them. I wasn't bored (though one member of the audience was and somehow managed to fall asleep and snore loudly).

Technically there were more gaffes than there should have been. When the electrician/all-other-minor-young-male-roles gives a song and dance (and just before the steps light up broadway style) the lights went down and the spot came up for less than a second. I'm not sure whether they'd accidently jumped the lighting desk on a cue and couldn't get back, or perhaps the bulb had gone, though from experience that is usually noticeably loud. The big clock that counted the years went only forwards, meaning that from scene one, set in 1990, to scene 2, in 1934, it counted forward, which I found extremely annoying - since it failed to represent the passage of time as it was meant to. Then, in the final scene it failed altogether and took us not to 1990 but to the nonexistent, outside of Pol Pot and the Hindu and Budist calendars, year zero. In a scene where the duchess phoned for room service, an amplified voice answered, or most of the time it did: on its second response the sound operator was very late fading him up.

Worth seeing then, but far from Ades finest hour and not something I'd go out of my way to see again.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Colin Davis conducts Sibelius

In contrast to some of my previous Sibelius posts, I intend to do something a little different with Colin Davis's recordings of the Sibelius symphonies, not least because he has three (well, nearly three) complete cycles, more than any other conductor I have considered, or, for that matter, full stop. So, unlike, say, Leonard Bernstein, whose two surveys (with the NYPO for CBS and the VPO for DG) I have looked at, or rather will look at, separately, I intend to consider all three together, this makes for a somewhat epic (6000+ word post), so don't say I didn't warn you. Further, instead of working through each one in turn, I intend to work symphony by symphony (i.e. both Kullervos, both firsts, and so on).

Two things should be noted. Firstly, the earliest cycle (with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for Philips) does not feature Kullervo; secondly, the final LSO Live cycle is not yet complete. Symphonies 1 and 4, though they have been performed and recorded, have not yet been issued. I'm not sure why this is the case, perhaps they aren't entirely happy with them or are stringing out the release, I had hoped that by the time I came to this post that would no longer be the case - sadly not. Sod's law dictates that the moment I post this, that will change.

We start, not with the first symphony, but the earlier Kullervo symphony. This is in my view an underrated and underrecorded work. It has appeared just twice in the posts that make up this survey, both times with Vanska (live and on CD). Both Davis recordings are with the LSO. The first, dating from 1996, comes from his RCA cycle and is unfortunately split between two discs. This shows in the moderate pace of the opening. The orchestra play well and in a lightly toned and textured manner, however the recording is a little on the harsh side. The dynamic range is nicely narrow in comparison to Vanska (which works very well in the concert hall but can be more problematic on CD). But where Vanska has a real sense of drive, Davis feels sluggish (the movement runs 4 minutes slower under him). This may seem like an odd complaint, given that in the past I have found fault with the later Davis recording for being too swift. Towards the end he builds some momentum, but finds almost none of the thrilling drama that makes this a favourite of mine, except in the final minute or two. It's a shame the first 14 minutes couldn't have been like this. The second movement is brisker, and Davis's touch still very light. He also brings a degree of humour. There is an intensity and fire to climaxes, but the pace is relatively moderate. In a way this takes me back to the concert hall (albeit that was with Vanska), and there is something rather special about that. Davis seems to be conveying Kullervo's Youth as his growth from childhood to adulthood. The third movement opens relatively briskly. The LSO Chorus are not nearly so precise as Vanska's Helsinki choir and very poorly recorded. Baritone Karl-Magnus Fredriksson is strong as the hero but soprano Hillevi Martinpelto is not as fierce or icy as his sister should be. She is weak also weak, breathless even at times when this shouldn't be. Davis finds a nice energy in the climaxes and is at his most persuasive during the slower, quieter moments. Unfortunately that isn't what this movement turns on, rather the shock and horror of the discovery, after he has seduced her, that she is his sister. He doesn't find this, or any sense of the macabre. In fairness, though, the close of the movement is rather strongly done. There is a strongish opening to the fourth movement, which is moderately paced. And yet I don't feel Kullervo going to war. Things improve dramatically as it progresses and the movement is brought to a powerful close, but Davis still seems a little laid back at times. The chorus are better (or better recorded) in the finale. His reading here is nicely compelling and he builds the tension well. For all that, though, there is something of the drama missing, perhaps Davis's tempo is touch fast, the music needs to be savoured or wrought out more. All in all, then, something of a mixed bag, some very fine parts and some not so fine, that doesn't altogether hang together.

Over a decade later, and Davis returns to the score with the same Chorus and Orchestra, this time live at the Barbican in the first instalment (well, canonically, not the first recorded) of his ongoing LSO Live survey. Again, he takes the opening fairly lightly. In sonic terms I think I prefer this recording (though the too are quite similar and this is also fairly harsh). It's worth noting also that the dynamic range of the recording is quite narrow in comparison to Vanska's. Davis takes quite a brisk pace (this account fits onto a single disc with 8 minutes to spare whereas the LSO reading had to be split). This may be why it feels a little rushed, however it does feel a little more dramatic in this opening movement. But the wonderful sweep that characterises some of his other recordings in this series is absent. Davis brings out some of the richness of the score, but next to Vanska it feels dull. Aside from a swifter tempo it is very similar to the earlier reading, though the movement's close feels a little more subdued the second time around. The opening to the second movement is well played, yet it feels much older than the previous recording, much less delicate and playful and with contrasts much less marked. It doesn't transport me back to the concert hall as the other one did. It almost feels a little by the numbers and only in the final minutes does he find real drama. The third movement is somewhat frantic, and while he vividly creates the sleigh ride, something is lost in the process. The chorus are a little sharper this time round (but not much better recorded). The big themes are spoiled by Davis rushing them. The baritone, Peter Mattei, is weaker than his predecessor and mezzo Monica Group is roughly on a par, i.e. also weak (it's interesting to note that this time round he uses a mezzo, as does Vanska, whereas last time he used a soprano). There is a stronger sense of rhythm and this is a more compelling account of the movement but it loses some of its lustre in the middle and, as with the previous version, there is a lack of shock and awe at the revelation. Kullervo Goes to War is similar, if perhaps a little swifter. Again, it doesn't feel like we're anywhere near the front lines though. Instead things feel rather gay (in the old fashioned sense of the word) and a little banal. The finale still somewhat compelling but the chorus just cannot match the Finns. Davis also doesn't build the tension nearly so well as he did the first time round, though he does find some drama in the final few minutes. The finish is decent, in particular the sense of swirling winds given by the string players. Ultimately, though, neither account is particularly satisfying.

Finally, with the first symphony, comes the first taste of the earliest of the three cycles, that with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Things get off to a good start with a superb clarinet solo. The recording quality is also a cut above what has been heard so far. There is plenty of tension and while the strings may not be icy, as they are for Bernstein in Vienna, there is incredibly beauty and delicacy to their playing. Davis chooses relatively broad tempi. There is a nice sense of sweep, mostly absent from the Kullervos, and excellent attention to detail. It is also a very visual reading and the first movement's finale has plenty of grandeur. He gives the andante a delicate and beautiful opening and again the playing is lovely and from the wind section finely textured (there are icy winds, but somehow slightly alien). Davis build things and judges the climaxes well. He manages a superb juxtaposition of power and haunting beauty. The scherzo starts possibly a little too gently and prettily, and yet there are some wonderful details, but altogether this is rather too smooth for a scherzo. The finale opens slowly and powerfully. Beautiful, chilling and visual to boot. The pace then picks up in a way that belies the timing. There is a real grandeur to the slower moments (in which Davis seems to luxuriate, but without ever losing the thread as Bernstein sometimes does). He delivers some fairly extreme contrasts in tempo but alternates naturally between them. And yet, after all that, the close is slightly underwhelming. Nevertheless, this is a very fine performance.

A few years later and we are back with the LSO on RCA. Interestingly, this is also part of coupling of the 1st and 4th symphonies, a pairing he must be fond of, since that is what it must be assumed is coming from LSO live (since those are the only two outstanding). The recording is decent but dryer. The opening clarinet is fine, but not in the same class as Boston and there is not the same tension. The entry of the strings is warm and a little rough in tone. The delicacy of Boston is absent but there is, perhaps, more sweep and grandeur. The harshness of the recording, which probably wouldn't normally annoy me, grates in comparison. He builds well to the finale and there is decent sense of momentum. The tempo is broader than in the earlier account (and the difference feels more pronounced than the timings would suggest). The playing in the andante is nice enough too, but doesn't seem in the same league as Boston. Davis's judgement of the climaxes is not the same and the textures are somehow blander. Okay, but really nothing special. The scherzo starts more urgently than before and is less pretty but things still feel too smooth for a scherzo and this time round he doesn't find the details as nicely. The finale again starts slowly but less powerfully. The playing seems unremarkable. The tempi don't feel as right as they did in Boston, especially the faster moments, and he doesn't seem to savour things in the same way. The end underwhelms. Round one (or rather two) firmly to Boston, as far as these ears are concerned.

There is, as yet, no LSO Live first, so we are on to the second (the first symphony to feature in all three cycles, indeed, this time round there is a fourth as well) and straight back to Boston. Davis gives a gentle, pulsing opening. There is a rich and lush orchestral sound and a warmth reminiscent of Barbirolli. There are, too, some atmospheric string tones, but tension and drive seem a little lacking. However, as in the first, there is an incredible delicacy at times. The climaxes have a reasonable weight and sweep. The delicate pizzicato at the opening of the andante is rather special and on the whole the playing is beautifully balanced. And yet something is missing: these are sonically beautiful climaxes but without the emotional impact, they don't feel like they've been earned. The tempi feel broader than the timings would suggest. The close is nice enough though. The third movement gets off to a compelling start with some edgier playing. But Davis seems to lose his momentum as things progress and doesn't build very well in to the finale which just doesn't grab me. Where is the tension? The drama? Where are the thrills and the visuals? Despite some lovely playing it is still bland, and while there is power at the close, it doesn't seem to achieve anything. Something of a disappointment after the first.

Davis's next crack at the symphony does not come from any of the cycles, but rather from this live recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden. One caveat needs to be given though: this a 192k mp3 (bought from emusic) that has been burnt to CD, so criticisms of sound quality should be seen in that context. Allowing for this, it seems to be the better recording. There is a wonderful, characteristic, richness to the orchestra, its string tones and colours. Set somewhere between Bernstein's icy cold and Barbirolli's warmth, this is lukewarm, tempi are also middling. There is no shortage of sweep and Davis builds the tension well. The dynamic range is at times not good enough, particularly in the large climaxes. It is a compelling reading of the opening movement, if not always with quite the drive or energy there should be. It some ways, the orchestra actually seems a little too rich in the andante, I would prefer a rawer sound. Starting gently, he brings out much of the beauty of the score, and without Bernstein's largess. Often, however, he seems to be trying for a light touch, which the orchestra doesn't quite seem able to deliver. The MP3 format seems to be restricting the sound the more complex it gets, which is unfortunate. The vivacissimo is something of a mixed bag: the weightier moments are wonderful but the lighter ones don't quite work. As such, the movement lacks the contrasts it should have. A shame, as there is some stunning playing. The build into the finale seems a little rushed, but the movement itself has a pulsing energy and plenty of sweep. Unfortunately, it is once again held back by the sound. He judges when to find relative lightness well and builds momentum strongly into the close, which has a very nice weight to it. This is a compelling and well played reading. Sound quality is the key limitation (and not necessarily all of that is the fault of MP3), but not withstanding that, there is still something missing. It is coupled with okay readings of En Saga and Luonnotar.

The LSO, on Davis's RCA recording also manage to be rich. He takes relatively broad tempi and a delicate approach to the opening movement and while there is some fine pizzicato playing, but I would like more oomph. The reading becomes more compelling into the first big climax and there is some excellent wind playing. The balance of the orchestra is much better than Dresden in this regard. The recording quality also seems good (though that may just be in comparison to the MP3). The andante opens lightly in the way the Dresdeners didn't, or couldn't, deliver. There is some fine playing and Davis builds the tension very well. It is a fairly slow reading but doesn't feel it. The slow passages are slow, but the faster ones are fairly brisk and the changes in tempo are expertly judged, but as a rule he is at his most compelling in the quiet moments. It is also a very visual reading. In short, the movement is played to near perfection. The orchestra are on similarly fine from for the vivacissimo. There is a superb balancing of light and heavy playing. The reading may not be as forceful as it could, but is extremely compelling none the less, most so in the slow, quiet passages. Davis delivers a stunningly powerful build into the finale which brims over with energy and fine playing (especially from the brass). There is sweep and grandeur and from the timing it is a comparatively slow reading, but doesn't feel it, probably due to the great sense of drive and momentum. This is especially true as the builds to the close, which is really quite superb. The deliberate tempo and magical strings contrast wonderfully with the bass line and the final phrases are delivered with near perfect grandeur. This is clearly one to beat.

Davis's 4th and final recording, and his second with the LSO is the most recent issue in the ongoing LSO Live survey. As with many LSO issues, the sound is somewhat dry but the orchestra balance is good. Again, he gives the work a gentle, pulsing opening and there is some fine and delicate playing from the orchestra, though as before I would prefer a little more oomph at times. He makes good use of his pauses and there is a fine sweep. The andante is more of a contrast, with a darker and heavier opening and one which feels slower than it actually is. Davis doesn't build the tension quite so well this time around and the tempo changes don't feel so natural, with the movement feeling a little rushed at times, and the less compelling for it. I would also prefer more weight to the climaxes. The opening of the vivacissimo is light and the contrasts with the heavier moments are not nearly so well judged as they were on the previous recording. The transition to the finale is odd: strong and fast, but rather coming out of nowhere. There is some sweep to the allegro but I would like more and somehow the reading just lacks something. In comparison to the previous one it is fairly dull for the first seven minutes or so, before waking up. There is some nice brass playing, but there should be more drama, more oomph. It is coupled with (or, rather, preceded by) a fine recording of Pohjola's Daughter. For the second, then, the gong goes to the LSO on RCA.

Back to Boston, and this time the second two disc set that makes up the cycle, for the third symphony. Davis takes the opening fairly slowly and the orchestra has a slightly rough edge to their sound, but the playing is compelling. The ensemble is beautifully balanced and there is a good weight to the climaxes. which feel very organic. There is something odd, harsh or sour about the tone of the recording. I want a richer sound, this almost sounds as though there could be something wrong with the hi-fi (but a check on other discs afterwards discounted this). The tempo changes are well judged but the reading doesn't have quite the visual nature that Sibelius can. The slow movement is taken fairly briskly, with light and delicate playing. The result is that it fits better with the allegro than is often the case and it makes for compelling listening. The gentle, quiet start to the finale is spoilt by the poor recording. Davis manages an exiting transition into the allegro, indeed, he goes at quite a lick (perhaps too swiftly). There is plenty of sweep but grandeur has been sacrificed for pace. He creates quite a frenzy leading into the weighty close, though I would like more detail. But the recording seems to get progressively poorer, which is a shame as notwithstanding that it is a compelling performance.

With the LSO there is again a slowish opening, though he soon picks up the tempo, and better recorded sound (though still a little harsh). There is much more energy and drama this time, but the recording doesn't handle the big climaxes at all well. There is grandeur and sweep by the bucket though, the tempi feel well judged and it is a more visual reading than Boston. The light, delicate and slow opening to the second movement fits well with the slower, subtler ending to the first this time. There is plenty of tension and beautiful, lyrical playing. The finale has a similarly slow start and again Davis builds the tension well, but the transition to allegro is not nearly so exciting as in Boston. What is worse, the allegro itself is rather dull and devoid of tension. Lacklustre, most of the time, I see the final notes I've scribbled are "Huh! Frankly!" I don't quite know why he went off the rails at the end, but there you are.

Fortunately Davis and the LSO have since had another crack at it. Now, the problem with discussing this disc is that it is one of the ones that ignited my obsession with Sibelius, so it's harder to be objective. The opening of the first movement is light but more driven and punctuated. There is more energy and the recording quality (surprisingly, as this is an LSO Live issue) seems to be the best of the three. There is a richness to the playing and Davis brings plenty of sweep. Tempo changes are superbly judged, as are the contrasts between light and heavy, and Davis brings and wonderful majesty to the slow moments. He builds and holds the tension well. It is true, though, that the sharp edged and hard driven climaxes that made me fall in love with Sibelius, and this symphony, may not be to all tastes. What I find particularly fascinating (as in many of the other recordings here) is how compelling Davis manages to be when he takes his foot off the accelerator. There is a light touch to the playing of the andante, and yet this is quite a dark reading. The playing is fine, particularly from the winds and the pizzicato playing from the strings, indeed the style is quite clipped generally. The transition into the finale is well judged. After a delicate opening he builds tension slowly, gradually ratcheting up the pace and drama but the slows up for the grandeur and sweep of the main theme. The final bars are thrilling - this is one of my absolute favourite Sibelius recordings (and clearly my pick of the Davis thirds).

Back to Boston and the fourth. Davis gives the work a nice, heavy opening and the sound is better than in the second and third. It is compelling, though perhaps not quite so haunting or dark as I would like. Perhaps a little too lyrical and poetic, which is very nice, but doesn't quite seem to work. It is certainly a very compelling reading though. There is a natural transition into the allegro where Davis brings a lightness of touch to the playing, though somehow things seem weighed down (which I know sounds contradictory), the more so as the movement progresses. It is a dark reading and feels like a descent. The playing is good, particularly from the winds. The transition to the largo is again very natural. In the same vein as the second movement, this too is both gentle and dark and no less compelling, despite what is a fairly slow tempo. At times haunting, particularly some of the string playing, but not so much as I would like but he does find a marvellous sense of bleak inevitability. The transition to the finale is okay. He opens a little too sunnily and joyfully for what has come before but the playing is still both delicate and very fine and the reading still compelling. Davis builds things well so the sunniness doesn't completely jar. The end is not quite as disturbing as it could be. In summary, this is a very fine reading, and yet it is lacking that extra special something, in particular the final movement doesn't quite gel with the rest.

With the LSO the opening feels slower (though, actually, it's fractionally quicker) and is lighter, in both senses. The result is not quite so compelling, although it becomes more so as the movement progresses. Again, he could be darker and more haunting in the opening movement. The recording is also somewhat harsh. The contrasts in the music are much more marked this time round and it is a more visual interpretation. Boston's lyricism and poetry are gone, and something rather unsettling is left in its place. Transitions are much less organic, but this actually seems to fit well. There is none of Boston's lightness in the second movement and it feels even more weighed this time round and not quite natural, claustrophobic almost, in a way that suits the music very well. In Boston there was a sense that Davis was taking us on a descent, there is none of that here, we are down from the very start. Again, the transition into the largo is abrupt, and again fittingly so. He brings a lighter tone than to the preceding movement (and, indeed, this one in Boston) and as with the first movement, while it feels slower this time round (and is when compared to many other readings) he is actually a touch swifter. It isn't haunting, as the movement can be, but this doesn't matter as Davis brings instead a gravity making for an almost resplendent feeling with some powerful climaxes. Given the pattern so far, he then makes a surprisingly natural transition into the finale. In contrast to Boston there is no sun in sight, indeed, in his hands the movement feels almost more like a Mahlerian scherzo, dark and edgy. Even the percussion seems dulled somehow. It is about midway through the movement before any rays of sunlight penetrate and even then they are few and far between. Davis maintains a good sense of drive and makes then end fit in a mundane and troubling way. These are both very fine accounts with a lot to offer, and both surprise me a little, if push came to shove, I think I prefer the LSO musically. I can't wait for the LSO Live issue.

For the 5th, the sound is rather poor again in Boston. Davis makes a gentle, almost lacklustre start. In particular, grandeur and scale are lacking in the big themes. The oomph and sweep that this symphony should be brimming over with aren't there. There is some fine playing but overall the results are a little dull with occasional sparks, such as the harshly captured closing bars, too few and far between. The opening of the andante is delicate, and yet not nearly as lyrical as it could be. Davis brings a degree more drama here, and yet somehow things are still a little cold, the sweep and the visuals still absent. The finale gets off to a brisk start, which would be more encouraging if it didn't jar so badly with what has come before. There is much more energy and excitement than has been the case so far, and yet it's unsatisfying as it doesn't feel earned. Still the Davis sweep is absent and there is little impact to the big climaxes. At one or two points the playing is not quite there. All in all, rather disappointing.

In the studio, the LSO are rather better (though by no means perfectly) captured and the reading is on the whole more compelling. Again, though, more energy, and more weight to the big themes, is wanted; there is still not as much oomph as I would like. There is some decent wind playing, if not quite so fine as might be hoped. Two thirds of the way into the first movement, things really wake up. There is an impressive sweep and scale to the climax and he keeps this momentum through a quite exciting close, though one which could have been a little tighter. Davis takes the andante lightly but much more lyrically than in Boston. Relatively brisk and the lyricism tempered with humour. The movement's close is particularly tender. As before, the finale starts briskly, but this time round it fits better. The finale is slightly slower than before, and improved for it. The Davis sweep is there, so too is a Vanska-like extreme dynamic range, with some impressive extreme piano playing. Indeed, the playing is generally very fine, the strings in particular are electric. Unfortunately he creates for a rather slow burning build up to the close which doesn't quite seem to have the sheer impact it ought to.

The final new entrant to this survey brings the LSO Live 5th. The quality of the recorded sound is good (especially so given this label's problems when it comes to their venue). As on RCA, there is quite a wide dynamic range here too. The wind playing at the start of the movement seems surer and there is drive that hasn't quite been present in the previous recordings. There is a sense of momentum and Davis builds his climaxes much better, there is more tension. He leads in much better to the climax where things caught fire the last time round and makes less of it, but the clipped brass playing makes for an exciting close. Unfortunately, this is tempered by recording quality (of the timpani especially) that is muffled. The andante is his fastest take yet. Played with the same clipped style, there is some fine pizzicato playing but not the humour or lyricism of the earlier LSO effort. Instead this is a rather high octane approach to the andante and rather more quasi allegretto than most. It is relatively compelling though and Davis does find more drama in it this time round. The transition to the finale is very, very unnatural. This has an electric start and doesn't feel as slow as the timings suggest. The Davis sweep is there, but the playing isn't quite (being a little ropey at times). He slows up rather too much about two thirds of the way through, but there is a weight and grandeur to the final few minutes (and he holds his pauses to good dramatic effect). Not outstanding, then, but probably the best of the three.

Davis opens his Boston 6th rather more abruptly and less lyrically than I would like. The recording issues that have been common throughout this set remain. The pacing is rather too brisk and the touch rather too light (as is common with these Philips recordings - which will doubtless appeal to those who prefer that approach). For me, the magic is missing and mainly due to the pace, this is music to be savoured much more. The second movement is similarly lightly played, indeed, it is edgy and almost nervous as a result. The fine playing isn't as compelling as it should be, things feel rushed. The transition into the vivace is abrupt. The clipped phrasing works well and things no longer feel rushed. It is much more like it in terms of a sense of drama too. The finale has some sweep but is still a little too lightly played and fast. Davis builds drama, tension and intensity and there is some superb playing, but why could the first three movements not have been more like this? In the end this is a reading that doesn't convince me.

Things get off to a better start with the LSO account, which opens altogether more lyrically and hauntingly. The recorded sound is preferable too and the orchestra seem better balanced. The tempi are better judged and Davis succeeds in bringing out the beauty of the score. Playing is light but not overly so. There is a sense of magic, tension and drama are better built and the reading has altogether more sense of flow. Similarly the allegretto is weightier, though still a little brisk for my tastes. Playing is fine, and the movement more compelling than in Boston, and yet it could be more so. There is a better transition into the third movement, the orchestral balance is better too and Davis brings out some nice textures. His brisk tempi are largely successful here and he builds superbly to the finale which is weighty, dramatic and with as much sweep as can be found here.

The LSO Live remake is pretty similar in terms of tempi, though a tad brisker. It is better played and recorded (the winds, in particular, are caught better). The playing is lighter (and more in line with Boston) and the result is less compelling. Tension and drama are built much less well. Things improve towards the close of the movement but something is still missing. The second movement is also lighter than I would prefer, it feels too delicate, but the tempo is more moderate than before and the better for it. The transition to the third movement is well done (as, in general, they are in this recording). This too is light, but effectively so, and the style of playing is less finely clipped than before. The finale is, once again, slightly muted next to its immediate predecessor, a lack of heft is part of it, but there is a sparkle missing. Fractionally quicker than the RCA reading (though slower than Boston), Davis's sweep is largely absent. There are some sparks of intensity, but these serve mainly to highlight its absence elsewhere. Despite a nicely played close, I prefer the LSO's first attempt. [One final note, the Amazon reviews of this disc of 5 & 6 would have you believe they are ruined by Davis singing or humming along, despite quite careful listening, I can't pick it up, and a number of reviews elsewhere fail to mention any such.]

Back in Boston, and the staggered opening of the seventh is not so pronounced as some. Davis takes the adagio gently and lyrically, with a tempo that feels neither rushed or sluggish. The playing is good and the recording fine. Things flow well and there is not a hint of the Mahler 9 syndrome (where the work feels like an unconnected series of miniatures in the wrong hands). There are some rather odd string tones though, and in place of grandeur and sweep there is solemnity. The entry of the trombones is effective but I would like them better caught and balanced. The transition into the vivacissimo is very organic, yet the string tones could be icier and there is a want of sweep in the following adagio. As the reading progresses some sections (in particular the allegro moderato) feel a little rushed, the vivace by contrast wants more oomph. The return of the trombones has the same problems as their introduction, only more severely so. Davis is at his most dramatic here, and this is complemented by the least adequate recording quality. Neither the trombones nor the affettuoso section bring the journey's end feel of the best performances but the Bostonians do deliver a very satisfying final few bars.

With the LSO's first effort, the graduation of the opening bars is more pronounced, the recording is better and the reading slightly slower. This time round Davis is not quite so lyrical, instead edgier and more dramatic. There is a sense of sweep from the outset, if only as though from the shadows. There is also a sense of majesty. He builds well to a better captured, and properly balanced, introduction of the trombones. Again, though, the vivacissimo could be more so. But, again, the reading is an organic one. The strings have an icier chill this time and there is much more weight and intensity to the climaxes. The allegro moderato could be more moderate and the vivace could pack more punch and offer greater contrasts. There is a nice, determined acceleration into the presto and the return of the trombones is fine, if a little brisk. As before, he doesn't quite capture the journey's end feel. The crescendo to closing bars is very effective, and yet the close is not quite so well judged as in Boston. As a whole, though, it is a more compelling reading.

For their live remake things are remarkably similar (indeed the timing differs only by around half a minute). The closed Barbican acoustic is more problematic than it has been and the orchestral balance suffers too. There is some nice playing, winds particularly, but not the sweep, flow or majesty of the previous effort. Davis's interpretation is a little juddering in places (and not in a good way). The trombones are disappointing too, some of which is down to poor balancing, but there is also less drama. The reading is more delicate and less compelling, though the transitions remain very organic. Many of my thoughts seem like a broken record - I want more vivacissimo, a better sense of chill to the strings, a more visual reading, more moderato for the allegro (though this attempt has the best judged tempo of the three here), more weight to the vivace, more drama to the presto. The return of the trombones is botched much as their entry and again the sense of journey's end is not what it should be. The first LSO reading is probably preferable here too then.

What of fillers? To start at the end, the LSO Live series has but one, the Pohjola's Daughter (coupled with the second symphony), but while decent, it doesn't really make the disc a must have, which it isn't based on the symphony alone. Indeed, it must be said that some of the LSO Live discs are rather sparsely populated weighing in at well under an hour. Then again, they are cheap. In Boston, Philips have crammed the symphonies onto three discs leaving the 4th free for an excellent violin concerto with the LSO and Salvatore Accardo, but the Finlandia, Tapiola and Swan of Tuonela that go with it, all from Boston, are rather poorer (It's a shame the violin concerto isn't in the set with the first and fourth, or that would be highly recommendable). The RCA set, at seven discs, is loaded with fill-ups. Mostly, as with Rakastava, En Saga, the Lemminkainen Suite, The Bard, Valse Triste and Tapiola these are okay. Pohjola's Daughter and Nightride and Sunrise are better. The Karelia Suite is just weird, oddly constrained both sonically and musically and Finlandia is impressively (not in a good way) bland.

These discs have surprised and somewhat disappointed me. Davis was largely responsible for hooking me into Sibelius, and that may have raised expectations too much. Maybe, too, I've found things more to my taste in some of the recordings discussed previously, and that now, on the return, Davis shines less brightly in comparison. I suspect that listening to different readings (sometimes quite similar) of the same symphony consecutively, though not normally back to back, has made me a little more picky. At his best (the 4th, the LSO studio 6th, the Boston 1st and, of course, the Live 3rd) he takes some beating; but overall, I don't think I'd recommend any of these sets as a complete one. That's not to say any are downright bad, just that one can do better. That said, the LSO does give as comprehensive an introduction as anyone and you can't go too far wrong with it.

As always, the ideal cycle would combine all three (though I'm not sure I would be completely satisfied with that, as might be possible with Bernstein and Mahler, say). Neither Kullervo works for me, Boston win for the first, the LSO (RCA) in the second, LSO Live for the third, I like both 4ths very much and cannot wait for the LSO Live issue, in the meanwhile I'd probably pick the LSO recording, I don't entirely get on with any of the 5th, but if push came to shove I'd take the LSO Live one over the others and the LSO in the studio for both the sixth and seventh and on Philips for the violin concerto (though, in fairness, that only appears in the one cycle).