Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Rachel Barton Pine, Serebrier, the RSNO, an overused word and assorted prizes

If I was going to award a prize akin to the yellow jersey of the Tour de France, in other words to name the best concert of the season so far, tonight's effort (Saturday, for those living in Glasgow) would surely take it. It helped that no microphone was on stage, meaning that we were to be spared one of Deneve's pointless speeches. True, tonight was not without competition: Paul Lewis's appearance was special, but the concert had other flaws; Truls Mork was wonderfully understated, and the accompanying Beethoven was nice, but the Hadyn didn't entirely work. But the return of Rachel Barton Pine, whom we have previously praised, was always going to take some beating, though she will have have her work cut out holding the title: Mackerras is due in town on Friday (well, due in Glasgow, and we will be there).

Before that, however, there was the small matter of La Mer. No, not the Debussy, just as well, since I am no fan of the work and never find it especially evocative of the sea, particularly when compared to Britten's interludes. This sea was painted by Alexander Glazunov and, frankly, offered no greater insights, despite the beautiful playing of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Jose Serebrier. The fast start didn't feel very nautical. As things slowed there were some nice sounds but the work never really grabbed or greatly held attention.

Help was at hand though, as, with only the slightest rearrangement of the stage, Rachel Barton Pine joined us to play the Bruch violin concerto. Now, much like the Tchaikovsky piano concerto, I'm not generally a fan of the work; in large part this is due to fact that it is so overplayed it has become hackneyed. Not so from Barton Pine. And here is where I will use an overused word: genius (though, in truth, we rarely apply it to a performer). However, I do think there is genius in making a work like that sound and feel so wonderfully fresh, only very occasionally did things feel familiar, even in the infamous third movement (indeed, so much so that I wondered at one moment if we were not getting the second concerto instead). That, coupled with the fire and passion she brings to her playing, made for a captivating performance. Barton Pine seemed to delight in the music, swaying along on her stool during those brief moments when she got to down her instrument. Beneath all this Serebrier provided well judged accompaniment and the RSNO were at their absolute best, frankly showing up the LSO's performance in the role of accompanist last week.

She was extremely well received and we got down to the real treat. Now, I'm no fan of encores, but last time it was the highlight of the concert as she played Sweet Home Chicago, which could have been the only thing in the concert without leaving me feeling short-changed. Don't believe me, check out YouTube:

I had hoped for a repeat, but I'm glad she knew better. Another thing I like about Barton Pine is that she tells you what she's playing. In this case it was an arrangement by Heinrich Ernst, who she suggested was best known for trying to outdo Paganini in virtuosity. The piece he arranged was Schubert's Der Erlkonig, which, she told us, is fitting this close to Halloween: a father rides with his son, pursued by Der Erlkonig. The original lied capturing the lies of Der Erlkonig, the father's attempts to comfort his dying son, and the galloping of the horse is all transferred to the solo violin. Not surprisingly it makes for a work of fiendish complexity and dexterity, but Barton Pine brought it off vividly with wonderful aplomb and showmanship. I only wish there was a video of it on YouTube too.

After more applause, I made a swift beeline to the foyer to get a signed CD. They were all out of her new disc of the Beethoven concerto, having sold them all in Glasgow, but I can easily get that on Amazon. What they did have was better: a disc of encores, including the Schubert. Sadly this only seems to be available in the UK via extortionately priced imports.

As she noted when introducing the encore, she was very much enjoying being in Edinburgh for the third time. It is our sincere hope that the fourth is not too far in the future. If Mr Mills is reading this, perhaps you could invite her for the festival, possibbly to play a concerto and do a Queen's Hall concert.

After the interval it was the turn of another party piece, this time for the whole orchestra in the form of Mussorgsky and Pictures at an Exhibition (indeed, at this point, with two such popular works, I'm moved to question how Michael Tumelty can possibly have thought challenging was a fitting adjective to describe the night in his Herald review). The twist was that this was not the Ravel orchestration but rather that of Leopold Stokowski. And it left me with one big question: why do we not hear this one more often; indeed, why do we not hear it more than the Ravel? The reason for hearing it tonight must in no small part be down to the time Serebrier spent under Stokowski's wing early in his career. In programme notes both Anthony Burton and Serebrier tell us that Stokowski felt Ravel's Pictures were not Russian enough; he also drops two pictures with French subjects. The results are wonderful, and vividly realised by the RSNO and Serebrier: from the humour of the unhatched chicks (with some exceptional trumpet and wind playing) to the eerie catacombs with its so soft and slow rendition of the promenade theme on the strings. If there was a complaint it would be that the bells were not loud enough during the Great Gate of Kiev, though I think this is in large part down to the inadequacies of the Festival Theatre as a concert venue (though, broadly, the sound was decent, leading me to suspect the problems during Mahler 5 were more down to Deneve).

Sadly, that was not all. The microphone had reappeared during the interval and Serebrier asked if we wanted to hear more. The audience was clearly in disagreement with me, but I cannot understand how anyone can think an encore can possibly add anything after something as powerful as that (something the conductor alluded to in his talk). If there is such a piece it most certainly isn't Stokowski's arrangement of Dido's Lament from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, nice and nicely played though it was. Despite the lukewarm applause he seemed determined to play another, this time Stokowski's arrangement of Bach's 'little' fugue in G minor BWV 578. This, with its climactic close, was a better finish, but better still to have left done after the Mussorgsky. Now, having studied under the man, Serebrier is clearly a great admirer of Stokowsi, but surely the better choice would have been to dump the Glazunov and put some more of his efforts in at the start. Indeed, so glaringly inappropriate was this encore I am moved to create an award in its honour: The Jose Serebrier Award for Inappropriate Encores, named for its first recipient. Of course, in order to balance and not be too nasty, we should also create the Rachel Barton Pine Award for Encores that Alone Justify the Ticket Price. While clearly named for its first recipient, the second should be retrospective and go to Sakari Oramo for his stunning Finlandia this summer. Don't believe me? I'll leave you with YouTube again, albeit not the Edinburgh performance.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Hands of Ruin - Falling Light

Okay, technically not a CD review, but rather a 320 kpbs MP3 download review, but I'm not creating a new category just for that: CD can cover all recorded music. Not to mention the fact I've burnt it to CD and am listening to that. This review review is also a Shameless Plug, since the artist behind it is our cousin (who clearly shares some DNA with our uncle Thomas Dolby who's also done a little electronic music in his time). Colin describes his project thus:

Hands of Ruin is colin z robertson’s dark electronic music project. My sound is influenced by electronica such as Aphex Twin and Autechre, right through to goth and industrial bands such as Dead Can Dance, Arcana and In Slaughter Natives.

I don't know any of those (although I think some may appear on the sampler CDs he did me in return for the classical samplers I put together for him, and which I haven't had a chance to listen to yet). As such, I probably can't comment as insightfully on this as I can other music.

The EP, Falling Light, contains five tracks which together last a little over twenty minutes. First up is the gently starting, atmospheric (not least the booming drum) and slightly haunting Winter by the Sea. This is offset by a distorting guitar underneath (or over the top - sometimes it feels like one, sometimes the other), and while initially I don't care for this additional texture, the effect is fascinating.

Shadows Across the Path opens with low distorting chords. Again, a sound that it not to my taste. But it, and the drum beat, does provide an interesting base for the flickering, sci-fi textured melody over the top. The base then drops away leaving the melody unsupported, hanging in space, in a way that is probably more effective than if the scaffolding had never been there.

An Inverted Spire is harder to pin down. As the layers build up at the start it rather reminds me of Dolby's demonstration of how The Flat Earth is assembled (I can't track down the original video from the TED conference online, but this should give an idea what I mean). It has a nicely circular feel, in that it disassembles again at the end (though journey does not end where it started).

The dark squelching sounds that launch The Heart of Hell don't quite seem as bad as that, more a sort of dull industrial grind. Is this perhaps meant to signify a heartbeat (an idea that occurs to me only after a couple of listens)? I've listened to this several times and I'm not entirely sure what I think of it, I shall have to keep listening.

Resting in a Cold Place also sounds somewhat mechanical at the opening, but also reminiscent of whatever mechanical or technological things they are resonating in a large room. There is, perhaps, less interest here in what is going on above and around this base than in some of the other tracks, and yet the trick of removing the support at the end is repeated, if, for that reason, with not quite such a benefit.

It's an interesting record, and one that rewards repeated listening, and which is well worth the modest fee. I very much look forward to hearing future offerings. But don't just take my word for it, head over to the Hands of Ruin site, where you can listen the EP before you buy.

Friday, 24 October 2008

First and last words from the LSO

Where's Runnicles will be getting to a fair few London Symphony Orchestra concerts this season; indeed, so many so that it will be our third orchestra in terms of live performance, after the SCO and RSNO. Most of those concerts will be with conducted by Daniel Harding, though a couple will feature Colin Davis. Readers might wonder why Gergiev isn't featuring. He was fairly impressive with the Mariinsky in Edinburgh this summer, but I have found his LSO efforts less so: I am not nearly as wowed by his Prokofiev symphony survey as many and he seems to conduct Mahler like a man late for an appointment, turning it into a rushed garble. He also seems rather too much a Russian specialist; indeed, it is interesting to note we have just had another Prokofiev cycle just a few years after the first. I'm not sure how good that is for the orchestra or, indeed, why they chose him. Harding, on the other hand, has greatly impressed me, both on disc, and also the one time I have heard him live, in his penultimate concert as music director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen at the Maltings in Snape where he gave a blinding account of Beethoven's seventh symphony.

First impressions of the LSO were good: the programme was free. Well, I say free, doubtless the handful of pound coins I didn't hand over to the usher found their way into the ticket price. Still, it is nice. The concert is part of the LSO's Last Words series. Indeed, before going further it is worth noting that the season brochure was rather poorly laid out in these thematic groups rather than chronologically, concert by concert, as most others are, and as I would prefer. If anyone from the LSO who has a responsibility for these things is reading this, please take note. Nobody I know thought it was sensible or worked well. The last word in question here was Sibelius's seventh symphony (which, in best pedantry, I should point out is only his last symphony and not really his last symphonic offering which would be the tone poem Tapiola). Absolutely perversely, Harding had chosen to programme it first: some last word! And, as a work, I think it is something of a last word, not a warm up. Perhaps he was worried sticking it in the second half might lead to a lack of balance, however, it didn't seem to fit as a curtain raiser.

Of course, anyone who conducts Sibelius with the LSO is filling awfully big shoes, in light of Colin Davis's legacy (it's good to note that the disc of the first and fourth symphonies that will complete the cycle is out soon). Harding took a slowish view of the single movement work, weighing in at around 23 minutes (quicker than late Bernstein, slower than Oramo and about on a level with Davis). It was a decidedly lukewarm view and it dragged, feeling slower than it was. The rich textures of Sibelius's writing were rendered rather dully. I'm tempted to wonder if the acoustic is partly to blame, since Salonen also had problems when he brought the LA Philharmonic. But Davis gets by fine on his LSO Live recordings. A similar problem occurred with the big entry of the trombones who, to my mind, frame the work at either end. They should soar majestically over the orchestra, but Harding brought everyone else up too so the listener had to work to discern them. The evocative sounds, the icy winds that someone like Bernstein finds, were absent too. The performance caught fire somewhat in the closing minutes, but it was too little too late, and it didn't feel like the epic journey it can.

After a brief reorganisation they were joined on stage by Imogen Cooper, and I suddenly realised I hadn't thought to book keyboard side (a mistake I have a horrible feeling I have repeated for Paul Lewis's visit with the Emperor next summer); I had been a little curious as to why the seats around me were so empty. Cooper played the Mozart 25th concerto, K503, with a sparkle, a delicacy and a beauty that was a treat to listen to. What a shame, then, that this wasn't quite matched from the orchestra, who gave a reading that was neither tight nor dynamic enough, and which was only occasionally impressive. All in all, from the first half, the LSO and Daniel Harding did not appear to be a good team: there was a distinct lack of chemistry between them. Cooper has recorded several of the concertos, including K503, with the Northern Sinfonia - further investigation may be required.

After the interval it was Schumann's second symphony. Almost from the start, one question arose: why on earth couldn't they have played like this in the first half? There was real tension to the slow introduction, then drama and energy to the quicker moments. The scherzo was thrilling. There was a richness to the playing and the orchestra generally seemed on song in a way that hadn't been the case in the first half. The work bounced along wonderfully to an energetic close. This was the sort of Schumann that was missing from the SCO's season opener.

At least, so I thought; my brother felt it had precisely the same problems as the first half, but, as he admitted, he doesn't much care for Schumann. I will be curious to hear what Harding makes of the rest of his appearances.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

A proper season opener from the SCO (and Truls Mork returns)

My first Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert, following the rather disappointing opening concert at Greyfriars Kirk, saw a welcome return to the Queen's Hall and, more importantly, to form. (It should be noted that two concerts have in fact taken place in the meantime, but one was a Cl@six concert at St Cuthberts, and my thoughts on those are well recorded, and the other was last Saturday, when I was enjoying what culture London had to offer, it also hailed from the more offbeat Adventurer new music series.)

The orchestra were joined by Norwegian conductor Eivind Aadland who began the programme with late Haydn in the form of the 102nd symphony, a lovely work, if not quite one of my favourites (the military and clock, 100 and 101 respectively, if you're interested). Initially things weren't too promising. The orchestra was a not quite tight enough during the slow introduction and his conducting seemed a little flouncing in manner. However, things improved greatly as the pace picked up. Unfortunately, Aadland didn't quite seem to know what to do with his pauses. A well held pause should have you on the edge of your seat, desperate for more; it isn't just an opportunity to down tools for a couple of beats. The start gave me pause for concern about the adagio. Fortunately this was unnecessary, though he did take it fairly briskly. What stood out, as ever, was the exceptional solo work of principal cellist David Watkin. The menuet was less successful. Aadland seemed to approach it more like a Beethoven scherzo, i.e. in a manner altogether too heavy. And unlike with Jochum, it did not become the key to the work. The finale was fine, but again the pauses were not well used. As Guildenstern notes in Tom Stoppard's superb play "There is an art to the building up of suspense"; Mackerras understands this art, as do many others, Aadland did not display it.

Fortunately, much better was to come as the stage hands moved things around to make way for Truls Mork, whose excellent performance last season of Hallgrimsson's cello concerto was a real highlight. This time round he showed his dexterity by moving from the very modern to the early classical and the second cello concerto of CPE Bach. (It is interesting to note that those in Glasgow and Ayr get the first while we share the second with St Andrews, the reason for this isn't explained but I can only think, and hope, that it is due to them also being recorded.) The forces are slightly unusual, being just string orchestra and harpsichord, no wind or brass in sight; unfortunately Gerald Larner's programme note provides no elucidation on this point, not even mentioning it.

From the moment Mork steps onto the stage and tunes his instrument (a rare Domenico Montagnana, with a lovely deep red hue) to his insistence on shaking hands with fellow cellist Su-a Lee and David Watkin at the end, he has an understated presence, which is mirrored in his beautiful playing. The richness of the tone he produces is also quite something. The orchestra playing, under Aadland's baton, was much sharper than for the Haydn, and Alastair Ross was excellent on the harpsichord. Indeed, it seemed a shame we couldn't have had both cello concertos instead of the Haydn. It is to be hoped the SCO engage Mork again next season, perhaps for some Dvorak under Charles Mackerras - that would be something. And maybe he could also be persuaded to take part in one of the chamber concerts?

Returning from the interval, I was again concerned: the Haydn had been a mixed bag, would Beethoven's first symphony suffer similar problems? It did not. More specifically it suffered none of them (or next to none, the sole exception being one or two pauses that added nothing, but this was not detrimental as it was in the Haydn). I think any conductor bringing Beethoven to the SCO taking a risk. After all, for many, myself not least, the memory of Charles Mackerras's cycle still resonates and is a very special one. This problem haunted many who brought Beethoven last year, in particular Thierry Fischer and especially Andreas Spering. Not so Aadland, and not so tonight. True, his first didn't have quite the humour or the thrilling pace of Mackerras, neither did it have the weight of the world that someone like Colin Davis brings with an orchestra like the Dresden Staatskapelle, but it did seem to delight in the music in a lovely way. The playing was tight and there were plenty of surprises; and Beethoven should do nothing if not surprise. The winds were on fine form and added nice textures. It was a reading full of drama and excitement. The proto-scherzo that is the menuetto worked in exactly the way the Haydn menuet didn't (and for the same reasons). Indeed, the quality of the orchestral playing in both the Beethoven and the Bach led me to wonder whether the Haydn might have been under-rehearsed.

One final note, a frequent complaint against conductors last year, e.g. Louis Langree, was the excess volume in the Queen's Hall. This prompted me to relocate this year from the stalls to the gallery, which also affords a better view of the whole orchestra. Whether it was that, Aadland's good judgement or the fairly small SCO on display tonight, or some combination of the three, remains to be seen, but there were no such problems tonight; long may that continue.

All in all, an excellent evening and a proper start to the season. And things can only get better since our next encounter, albeit relocated to Glasgow, features Mackerras and the Beethoven fourth piano concerto. I can't wait.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Monday night film club

A month or so ago a friend invited me to come along to their Monday night film club at the Cameo cinema. Since I haven't been getting to the cinema as much as I might like recently (indeed, our first, last and only film review dates from May last year and, in truth, was written largely because Spider-Man 3 was simply a disgrace and something had to be done about it) this seemed like a wonderful idea. This has proved to be the case, and not just because it involves a trip to the pub afterwards. The Cameo is a nice cinema and, as we noted on our last visit for an opera relay, the seats are comfortable and the view good; there is also a nice bar, though they don't always have a good enough stock of food.

First up, about three weeks ago, was Die Welle or The Wave, for those who don't speak German. This is based on the 'true' story of Ron Jones, a teacher in Palo Alto, California who decided to show his pupils fascism rather than simply teaching it. It has been filmed before, but this new adaptation lends the story added weight by moving the action to Germany. Teacher Rainer Wenger, portrayed well by Jurgen Vogel, frustrated by his students' refusal to take the issues he is trying to teach seriously, dismisses his students for a break about ten minutes into the first lesson (if you will permit a brief rant, there is a perennial failure to portray teachers on film with even vague realism, how often do bells go when they seem to be in mid-sentence, teachers in films seem to have no idea how to plan a lesson). When the students return, he has broken the desks into well ordered rows, he insists they stand when speaking and do not do so without permission. He makes them do calisthenics in a way that conjures the Hitler Youth; however, by making it as much about disrupting the hated teacher below, the kids enthusiasm for it is all the more plausible.

The first few days of the week over which the film is set are extremely believable. Wenger's use of democracy, wherein he is selected as leader, where they choose a name, also reflects how such totalitarianism can rise through the ballot box. Slowly the class becomes more popular, a uniform is adopted and the student who choses not to wear it, as she doesn't feel jeans and a white shirt suit her, his marginalised horribly. Wenger gives a sense of identity and belonging to many students who clearly need it, coming from a variety of broken or dysfunctional homes. The justification for students copying each other, and seating the weak next to the strong, has a powerful logic: for the good of the unit. The use of modern communication, of text messages and video phones, is also well done. So far, so very compelling.

However, it is as things get more outlandish that the problems start. I had a slight sense that the makers of the film weren't quite sure how far to take it, or how to get out of the situation that had been created. One particularly troubled pupil starts showing up at Wenger's house (indeed the fact that all the pupils seem easily able to find his house is a little implausible) and he doesn't really take any action about it. (If you haven't seen the film, and don't want the end spoilt, I suggest you skip on a paragraph now.) Things become further removed from the story on which it is based in the close, where the same student, after Wenger has told them that The Wave must end and that it is no different from Nazism, doesn't take it well: it has given him an identity. He pulls a gun and ends up shooting one student before killing himself. This is a shame as up to they had almost ended it more convincingly: Wenger calls for a student who has suggested that The Wave is a bad thing be brought to the front, he has worked the crowd to a frenzy. They drag the student to the front and Wenger asks what they would do next, would they kill him if he asked it. That said, it is less clear why it is this student who finally convinces Wenger to end things: he comes to Wenger as he has just hit his girlfriend and blames The Wave when, in fact, it seems there is much more to it than that. Given some things that have already happened it is hard to see why this is the turning point.

Then there is the issue of how true the original story is. There is a lack of contemporary accounts and it was some years after the original event that Jones first wrote about it. It seems likely that Jones did try to use a different method to approach the topic. We'll probably never know the extent to which the students involved were actually caught up in it. It would be fascinating to see the experiment repeated today: in these times of endless reality nonsense here would be something actually interesting. But the flaws of the film should not in any way deter anyone from seeing it: it is powerful and extremely thought provoking.

A week later it Kristin Scott Thomas for Il y a longtemps que je t'aime or I've Loved You So Long for those who don't speak French. Scott Thomas, in excellent French, plays Juliette Fontaine, who has just been released from prison and moves in with her sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) and her husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius). Over the next two hours the story of where Juliette has been and why slowly unwinds. Her crime, which we will not reveal, on the face of it abhorrent, prevents her from getting job after job and we see a very convincing portrayer of her struggle to rebuild her life, Lea's attempt to reconnect with her lost sister and the mistrust Luc has for her.

The main parts are all played very well. Scott Thomas does taciturn melancholy so wonderfully, but Zylberstein has a tougher role as her sister since she needs to carry much more of the emotional weight of the film. Luc's wariness, particularly when the children ask auntie Juliette to read them a story, is especially powerful.

The film unwinds slowly and reveals the story at about the right pace, keeping you curious but not too much so. This is to the credit of writer and director Philippe Claudel. People interacting with Juliette outside of the family are particularly interesting. There is a powerful scene when a friend of the family makes repeated demands at the dinner table to know where she has been for the last fifteen years. Finally she admits she was in prison for [I won't spoil it]. The offhand way she makes the remark leads everyone except Michel (Laurent Grevill), the love interest, to take it as a joke. In a funny way it reminds me of the scene in David Lodge's superb novel Changing Places wherein the English faculty of Esseph University are playing a game called humiliation. Each player must name a book they haven't read and scores a point for each player that has read it, i.e. you win by making yourself look stupid. It drives one player to distraction as he both cannot bear to lose but also cannot bear to be inferior. In the first rounds he names obscure German texts and gets no points, then he finally gives in and admits to not having read Hamlet. Of course nobody believes him and the party breaks up acrimoniously.

Not quite everything is perfect. For example, the story arc of the police officer to whom she reports on a weekly basis doesn't really seem to serve a purpose. But film is beautifully made and makes for a compelling few in the cinema.

Last week say How Ohio Pulled It Off. Written and director by Charla Barker, Matthew Kraus and Mariana Quiroga, this documentary purports to tell how the Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio's secretary of state at the time of the 2004 election, disenfranchised the voters in disadvantaged and predominantly African-American areas, and so stole the election for George W. Bush.

From the start there are problems. Perhaps for those who have no idea what an electoral college is it will grate less, but for people with a basic understanding of the system by which America chooses its president, the film is extremely patronising. Similarly the decision to juxtapose the 2004 election with Blackwell's battle to become the governor of Ohio in 2006, which hardened politicos will know he must have lost since that role is currently occupied by Democrat Ted Strickland.

It also lacks intellectual rigour. Now, that's not to say there isn't plenty of evidence that voters were disenfranchised, and I too am extremely wary of electronic and computerised voting systems for many of the reasons given (the ease with which they can be rigged and the lack of an audit trail). I am also no friend of President Bush and the result of that election was not as I had hoped for.

Here's the thing though: in 2000, in Florida, it came down to a couple of hundred votes. There is evidence of serious disenfranchisement in mainly democratic areas that would more than cover the difference. There is also the fact that Gore carried the popular vote (though it has to be noted that Florida would not have been an issue had he managed to carry his home state of Tennessee, and losing one's home state legitimately makes it harder to argue you were robbed). In 2004 Bush had the popular vote by over three million. Had Kerry fought on in the face of this he would have looked absurd.

The film, despite throwing around numbers of voters disenfranchised here and there never actually conflated these to the numbers by which Kerry lost, either in Ohio or nationally. I followed the campaign closely in 2004, and in many ways Kerry lost it through poor campaigning and gaffs. When the results came in and were as heavy as they proved to be it was not altogether a surprise.

It also ignored various other facts. If it really was all down to disenfranchisement, how did Blackwell lose in 2006? If all the voting machines are rigged, how did the Democrats manage their landslide in that same year.

It also ignores the fact that voting irregularities have a long and august history in America. There is evidence of irregularity in the 1960 election, where Kennedy defeated Nixon on behalf of the Democrats particularly in Texas and Illinois, though for some reason you rarely hear Democratic activists complaining; the film makers didn't either.

Film club took a break this week, and may be a little irregular until mid-November, owing in part to my friend jetting off to tour Japan with her band The Starlets, where's Runnicles' Japanese readers, of which I do not think we have any should check them out (or, indeed, our readers based anywhere else who happen to be in Japan at the start of November - incidentally, if you are reading this in Japan, do let us know via the comments facility).

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Bernstein conducts (and even plays a little) Mozart

Bernstein's disc of Mozart's last two symphonies was one of my first classical purchases, so this box was an exciting prospect. The first disc contains symphonies 25, 29 and 38. The first two are nothing to write home about, and though the VPO does play very well, Bernstein doesn't seem to make as much of what might be termed the lesser symphonies as someone like Mackerras does. Things catch fire with 38th Prague though, which has some of the drama that makes his 40th and 41st so special. Disc two, containing among other things the Haffner no.35, which has a real bounce to it, the 36th and 40th. The 40th, which, along with the 39th and 41st that fill disc three, is superb. Bernstein is thrilling and the orchestra is surprisingly light compared to some recordings. The finale of the Jupiter in particular is edge of the seat stuff and one of my absolute favourite recordings.

Disc four contains some concertos. First up is the 15th piano concerto with Bernstein the soloist. Certainly this is much better recorded that his earlier effort with Columbia but he is also nowhere near greatness. This is followed by the clarinet concerto K622 with Peter Schmidl as the soloist, this is better, but again not one of the reasons to buy the set.

The final two discs are occupied by choral works. On the fifth we get the Ave verum corpus K618, the Exsultate, jubilate K165 and the Mass in C minor K427. There is also a change in forces from Vienna to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The first two works are lovely, there is fine singing and Bernstein provides sensitive accompaniment. This is less the case in the mass where I'm not wild about soprano soloist Arleen Auger who seems to have a slightly off tone and an odd slur when moving between notes, also the part doesn't always feel quite within her range. But there are compensations: a wonderful richness to the playing, and what drama.

The last disc contains the Requiem, always a slightly unsatisfactory work, given much of it is not Mozart's work. This is a very different approach than I'm used to. My benchmark recording is not only a different version of the score (Levin), but also under Mackerras has a more HIP approach and the smaller forces of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Bernstein has an unapologetically romantic approach and this makes for quite a heavy reading. And while at times it is fleet of foot, it still feels a little weighed down. It is well played and sung (again with Bavarian forces) and the recording is excellent with the organ especially well caught.

All in all then, as with most of the recent releases from this series (especially the box of Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn), it is hard to go too far wrong. Next up is a box of more Beethoven, the symphonies having long been available, including the long out of the catalogue Amnesty International concert.

Paul Lewis returns with more Beethoven

One of the highlights of the 2005/6 and 2006/7 seasons was Paul Lewis's superb series of concerts traversing the complete sonatas of Beethoven at the Queen's Hall (as well as the Wigmore Hall in London and one or two other locations). The results can be heard in his superb and contemporaneous CD recordings.

He is now embarking on a recorded survey of the concertos, before returning to the solo piano works with the Diabelli Variations. Infuriatingly, his appearance with the RSNO is one of those that the orchestra was unable to reschedule for Edinburgh, this necessitated a trip to Glasgow and my first visit to the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

It nearly wasn't to be: unbeknownst to me, repairs caused a diversion down a branch line and it was much tighter to get to the concert hall than I expected. The hall itself is very nice, the wood look is actually very similar to the furnishing of the City Halls, though the shape is not shoebox but almost in the round. It is also much newer than might be expected and given we had one of the preeminent Beethoven pianists of the day it was rather less full than might be expected.

My eagle eyes couldn't help but notice a microphone. I had hoped that Deneve's speaking was purely an opening concert thing. Unfortunately it seems this is a habit and an infuriatingly pointless one. He talked for several minutes adding nothing the sum total of human knowledge, except that he likes audio guides in art galleries. I don't, and I don't like conductors talking unless they have something interesting to say and something beyond what is printed in the programme; it was difficult to fight the urge to yell out "shut up and play". It was the more baffling given he told us we could find out all about the works in advance online and in the programme and that we should do this. I had.

The concert began with Beethoven's Leonore III overture. The orchestra played well and the opening was taken quite slowly, and then tension could have been built and held a little more. When the main fast theme came in, Deneve took it much too fast, faster than his orchestra could keep up with. The solo flute, presumably Katherine Bryan, and offstage trumpet were very well done. The sound of the hall, doubtless due to its shape, was a little dry, though certainly better than the Barbican.

Paul Lewis then came on to play Beethoven's second concerto, actually his first if one is being correct. It is probably my least favourite but with Lewis at the helm one mustn't quibble. Deneve chose a more sensible, middle of the road, pace and Lewis displayed the same mix of delicacy and weight when called for, though without needing to thump, that I have come to expect from his solo recitals. That said, the concerto doesn't provide quite the showcase for his talents that others, say the Emperor, would do, and which I will hear him perform with Davis and the LSO in June. He played the cadenzas particularly beautifully. The Glasgow audience didn't seem to appreciate him quite so much as we did in the Queen's Hall and for once we got no encore when I wouldn't have minded one. It is not clear with whom he is recording the concertos, though it is almost certainly not with what would be my preference: Mackerras and the SCO. The RLPO seems more likely, again a shame as I suspect Davis/LSO will be magical too.

After the interval it was Strauss all the way. First up was the suite from Der Rosenkavalier. Initially Deneve took it rather too fast but he found a wonderful beauty to the slower themes and the playing of the RSNO was suitably rich. That said, his reading did drag slightly in places. After this a number of people left, perhaps they were dashing to catch train or perhaps they incorrectly assumed that the concert was over, since Deneve in his talk had only mentioned one work for the second half, Till Eulenspiegel.

Deneve was clearly much more at home with the work's pranks and silliness. Indeed, thinking back to the Poulenc or this summer's Le Roi David, he is most at home at this end of the spectrum. He brilliantly brought to life the madness, frenzy and outlandishness of Strauss's score.

The RSNO's truncated Edinburgh season opens

The aforementioned problems with the Usher Hall have hit the RSNO worse than the SCO not least because there simply isn't a suitably hall in the city to which they can relocate (until the Ross Bandstand gets covered with a brick by brick replica of Glasgow's City Halls - n.b. where's Runnicles is fairly certain that this plan exists only in our overactive imagination, so don't get your hopes up). Last year they went to the Festival Theatre, which is okay for opera, but orchestral concerts? This year they could only relocate about ten concerts there as it was already booked up, and many of those have gone to slightly odd days and times.

Just how unideal an opera house is for an orchestral concert may be illustrated by the picture (below). Those may be acoustic curtains, certainly they are wanted to stop the sound bleeding away into the wings, the whole thing looks a little bizarre though.

Looks aren't very relevant though, what matters is the sound. But before we could find that out Deneve spoke to us and gave a brief, and frankly, for the most part, rather pointless sketch of the season (the sea and Mendelssohn are key themes, which anyone who's read the brochure would know). I think it was rather tactless to point to Berlioz's Damnation of Faust as a highlight, not that I think it won't be, but because it isn't happen in Edinburgh. His speech only served a useful purpose when he gave a rather moving dedication to Myra Mackay, the orchestra's librarian for almost twenty years who passed away suddenly on 25th September. Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet was a favourite piece of hers so the orchestra had dropped the overture to Wagner's The Flying Dutchman in favour of The Mongatues and the Capulets and the Death of Juliet. Both were nicely played and the hall didn't sound too bad. Deneve brought plenty of drama to the march and the death was extremely beautiful.

This was followed by Szymanowski's Sinfonia Concertante for which they were joined by Piotr Anderszewski, for whom I have no great love, on the piano. Despite Deneve's effusive praise in his little talk, Anderzewski did little to improve my opinion. This was a shame because the orchestral playing was wonderfully exciting, but it was set against pianism that was a little bland and mundane, though nothing like so much as Trpceski, and too thumpy for my taste. Otherwise it was a very engaging piece, and one that I think I need to investigate on CD. The orchestra's quiet playing, always a good yardstick, was impressive and Deneve judged the transition into the final beautifully.

The second half brought my principal reason for attending: Mahler's fifth symphony. Deneve took a very slow view of the work, perhaps not quite late Bernsteinian, though I wasn't timing. While you can get away playing the work slowly, you need something by way of compensation. Now, to some extent I think the hall may be at fault: while there was never any shortage of volume, there was a lack of weight and richness to the sound, and that hurts Mahler. Deneve's other, rather unfair, handicap is that the last time I heard this work was from Jansons and the Bavarians who had a better trumpet soloist than I ever expect to hear again. The RSNO's opening trumpet, one presumes principal John Gracie, was perfectly decent if a little raspy in tone. However, in general the opening movement was rather dull and lacking in energy. There was very little flow and continuity between the first two movements, which Mahler himself lumps together as part one of the work and which in many fine recordings feel almost one movement. The triangle was almost inaudible in the great triangle punctuated climax, a favourite moment, though again this is likely down to the hall. At the end of the movement he rather bizarrely got down of the podium and took a brief break. A frequent problem in this work is the management of the transition between the frenzy of part one and the idyllic beauty of the adagietto. Since Deneve had avoided the frenzy he had no such problem and the scherzo was much in line with the opening movements for blandness. The horn solo wasn't especially impressive, indeed the horns generally didn't wow me. The adagietto was much nicer, beautifully played and probably the most compelling movement of the performance. With the finale Deneve returned to dullness and again was rather slow, it only caught fire at the very end.

All in all, a slightly mixed opening and one which has me wishing for a speedy reopening of the Usher Hall. Hopefully my next visit to the Festival Theatre, which features the return of Rachel Barton Pine, will be better.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

The SCO's new principal conductor

One of my complaints about the Scottish Chamber Orchestra last season was that they would benefit from appointing a principal conductor, a role that has been vacant since Joseph Swensen's departure in 2005. I did overhear an audience member last year suggesting that the appointment of Olari Elts as principal guest conductor was intended as a stepping stone to the main role, a suggestion which, for various reasons, seemed ominous. Fortunately, we hope, this has proved untrue, or, at least, been supplanted by a new and, by all accounts, somewhat rushed, strategy.

Yesterday the orchestra announed the appointment of Robin Ticciati. I have no idea of the extent to which I this is a good thing, though an appointment in itself is overdue and this review of an April concert with the OAE from the Telegraph is bodes well. Ticciati is very young, only 25, and has never performed with the orchestra in either Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Why, then, has he been appointed? Apparently he made his debut this summer for the orchestra's highland tour and so enamoured were the orchestra that they immediately asked managing director Roy McEwan to hire him.

There are promising signs and he seems to have had swift rise, including being named as music director of Glyndebourne on Tour recently, performing with orchestras such as the Staatskapelle Dresden and at La Scala, not to mention becoming the youngest debut conductor at Salzburg.

The Herald and Scotsman both regurgitate the press release, as in fairness we have largely done, and seem never to have heard perform him either; certainly they provide nothing to guess at the sort of performance he may bring.

Unless I try to catch him for Hansel and Gretel at Covent Garden this Christmas I probably won't get the chance to hear him until he performs with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Edinburgh and Glasgow and that won't be until the start of the 2009/10 season when he will do four weeks, rising to eight in subsequent years. Hopefully the Usher Hall will be finished by then. I am more than curious how it will turn out.

Runnicles Twitters

Never let it be said that we are not at the forefront of modern technology. We may not always be the quickest with our reviews though we are faster than the Scotsman sometimes (case in point my review of the SCO's season opening concert seems to have beaten both it and the Herald, to the web at any rate, doubtless because they will have had the sense to hear it last night in Glasgow). However, as we both have plenty of other commitments we are not always as quick as would be liked.

Now, however, we about to be one of the fastest arts blogs around. You can now follow Where's Runnicles on Twitter. In theory updates may come in the interval during concerts or even as the orchestra is moved about between works. The rules of Twitter are simple - each post is an answer to the question 'What are you doing?', though we may take a degree of liberty with the question, and is limited to just 140 characters, so each post will necessarily be brief. What more could you ask for?

(If there is something more you could ask for, feel free to do so via the comments, though we make no promise.)

Friday, 10 October 2008

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra starts its season (but first a rant)

I don't envy the SCO's management their task last spring, though it was not nearly so tough as that which faced the RSNO (more of which in an upcoming post): having to cope with the last minute revelation that the Usher Hall would not be ready for the autumn season, nor indeed the spring. Actually, the SCO had it fairly easy since many of their concerts were anyway slated for the smaller Queen's Hall and they could relocate others there. Well, mostly. This seems to be down to the fact it was already booked for Thursday (though whether it was available on Wednesday I am not sure). The management's solution was, in Yes Minister speak, courageous. That is perhaps a little harsh, but it certainly wasn't wise and some of the wounds were self-inflicted. On the face of it, two performances on Wednesday and Thursday would seem to be a passable solution. And, certainly, they could have done worse. The acoustic of Greyfiars Kirk, while not suited to an orchestra of this size, is not as dire as St Cuthbert's was (for reasons passing understanding the SCO has again decided to try and con people out of their money in the Cl@six concerts there this year).

The bigger problem was one that was entirely avoidable and showed an absolute contempt for their audience. I should make clear, I direct this comment not against the SCO's fine players but their managers. £20 is fairly steep for an SCO ticket, indeed it is only £6 less than the price of the finest seats in the Queen's Hall or Usher Hall this season. Further more, that £20 did not receive the discount that is applied to those who buy season tickets, though if you were lucky enough to be a student you got, for reasons beyond my ken, 75% off. The steep price got you not only the poorer acoustic, but also seating that was unreserved. Even arriving with twenty minutes to spare I was a number of rows back and could barely see most of the orchestra. I was glad I had rushed my tea: some people ended up paying £20 to sit on wooden benches with pillars blocking their view. Some people did get reserved seats, I spied at least half a dozen, they didn't seem to be for the disabled, so I'm curious to know who merits such special treatment.

But, you might say, surely you can't expect a church to be run like a concert hall. Well, maybe not, but you can certainly get a lot closer. Next time the SCO are forced into this situation they might like to get in touch with the folk at Aldeburgh: aside from the Maltings and Jubilee halls, they also run a number of performances each year in churches such as those at Orford, Blythburgh and Aldeburgh itself; there are a range of prices to the seats, they number the more expensive areas, the cheaper sections have little view and are unreserved. It isn't rocket science. I was not alone in this view: the people next to me complained loudly and departed at the interval, along five people from the row in front of me; given the second half was Schumann this should concern the orchestra. Roy McEwan, the managing director, owes his audience an apology. It further rubs salt in the wound that, doubtless due again to Usher Hall problems, we are not getting the Mackerras concert in Edinburgh. While this is doubtless beyond McEwan's control, it was tactless to mention it in his 'season highlights' in the programme.

Enough of that, however, what about the music? I had been in two minds as to whether or not I would go, for reasons given above, but two things won me over. First there was presence of conductor John Storgards, whose appearance last year was one of the more impressive concerts, and second there was the emperor concerto, and everyone loves the emperor. Before that, things kicked off with a decent reading of Beethoven's Consecration of the House overture, op.124. The first chords surprised me as they were very loud, and Storgards was one conductor who didn't feel the need to deafen everyone last year, however he soon showed that he was the same man. The winds lost out in the balance, and I presume the acoustic of the church was to blame, though in some ways this helped by hiding some fluffs from the horns. The sound got muddier the louder things became and while it didn't become a reverberant muddle like St Cuthbert's, things could have been clearer. Still, it was an engaging curtain raiser.

After a few moments Storgards and the SCO were joined by Simon Trpceski who, judging from his biography, is the next big thing; aren't they always. While he may have been in the BBC New Generation Scheme seven years ago, I am at a loss to hear why. He wasn't bad per se, but his pianism was of an impressively dull and bland form, often infuriatingly so. He was particularly exposed during the cadenzas or other solo moments. He wasn't quite as much a thumper as many of last year's guests, but he did tend towards hitting too hard, though without the weight or grandeur that a real great finds. Storgards' dynamic accompaniment, and the orchestra's fine playing, proved far more interesting than anything going on at the keyboard. Nowhere was this more of a problem than at the transition between the second and final movements, one of my favourite moments. The orchestra holds a long chord and the pianist strikes some tentative, teasing, tantalising notes before the finale bursts in. It is a moment of exquisite beauty that should have you on the edge of your seat; when the orchestral chord is by far most interesting thing happening it is monumentally dull. The balance of the winds was improved in the concerto, perhaps the raised lid of the piano acted as a baffle to some of the strings but this was poor consolation for a piano part that lacked any real joy or sparkle. The audience seemed more enthusiastic, though not so much so that his encore seemed entirely justified. If played well, there really is no encore to follow the emperor. That wasn't the case here, but even so it showed, to my mind, a disappointing lack of judgement. He played the andante second movement from Beethoven's op.2/1 sonata and while this wasn't exactly inspired, it was more interesting than anything he brought to the concerto.

After the interval, and a thinning of the crowd, we got Schumann's 3rd Rhenish symphony. Storgards didn't hang about, and indeed the opening movement felt rushed rather than the lively marked. The work is somewhat cliched and I like a reading, e.g. Bernstein, that plays to this: it should be a bit over-romantic, it needs that to give it the river's lilt and flow. The scherzo, marked very moderate, didn't really feel it either and the third movement, while marked 'not fast', was taken at a pace that certainly wasn't slow or anything like it. The fourth movement's 'solemn' was much closer to the mark, the opening calling to mind nothing if not Purcell's funeral music for Queen Mary, but became a little too frantic as it progressed. His reading of the finale was exciting and fitted perhaps best of the lot, but all in all it was something of disappointing performance, if not technically then certainly interpretively. Still, this is very much a matter of personal taste and there will doubtless be some who read the last paragraph and think I'm spouting nonsense.

I'm not attending the next two concerts (one is the Cl@six series and thus subject to automatic boycott, the other features Elts who didn't impress me last year) so we will next see the SCO back at their Queen's Hall home on 23rd October for a programme including Haydn's 102nd symphony, Beethoven's first and Truls Mork joining them for CPE Bach's second cello concerto.