Thursday, 24 February 2011

Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic finish their London residence with Mahler 3

In many ways, Wednesday's final performance of the Berlin Philharmonic's four day stay in London was no different to the rest: the calibre of the orchestra's playing was of a similarly high order and Rattle displayed a fine control of the impressive instrument he has at his disposal, the expressions on his and their faces no less passionate than they have been all week. But, for whatever reason, and I'll try to get to the bottom of it with this post, the performance didn't speak to me emotionally. This brings home particularly starkly how personal and subjective such reactions are, others were clearly deeply moved by it, perhaps for some of the same reasons my heart was not set racing.

That's worth noting as I was clearly in something of a minority, with many in the Festival Hall rising to their feet at the end. Interestingly, for whatever reason, ovations like that seem much common in the Festival Hall; the previous two days of superb Schubert and Mahler at the Barbican did not draw the same response. At Edinburgh's Usher Hall it often feels like the only way you'd get a standing ovation would be to electrify the seats, which I feel is a pity and probably ruled out on health and safety grounds. I don't mention that in any way to belittle the audience's response, rather because I'm simply curious as to the reason for the difference. But I digress.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic play Schubert's great C major and more

The other week when this concert was performed in Berlin, and broadcast via the Digital Concert Hall, it was billed as the 8th symphony, here in London it was the 9th (and you can argue it's number 7 too). Regardless of how you choose to number it, or the disputes are over the numbering, what is surely beyond doubt is that the great C major ranks among the finest symphonies ever written.

It stands on the cusp between the classical and romantic eras, and one measure of its greatness is how wonderfully it responds to both a more classical approach, a la Mackerras or Erich Kleiber, or an unashamedly romantic take, such as Furtwangler provides. Rattle's interpretation, as will be known to those who own the recording he made with the Berliners a few years ago, followed firmly in the footsteps of his predecessor in this regard, and was utterly thrilling for it. This was particularly evident both in his choices of tempo and, as importantly, his changes therein.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Rattle and the Berlin Phil play Stravinsky's Apollon and Mahler 4

In the manner of a striptease in reverse, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic have been gradually putting on their clothes, that is to say adding more players to the stage, over the course of the first two of their four London concerts. They began yesterday with but a string quartet, progressing to a chamber orchestra. Concert two opened with a full string orchestra for Stravinsky's Apollon musagète. By coincidence, this is the second time I've come across the work this month, the first being under the baton of Rattle's protégé Robin Ticciati, performing with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, albeit a different version (I think, I don't have my programme to hand to double check).

It is a stunning piece, so I'm more than glad to be hearing it again. Rattle had arrayed the bass section in a single row at the back of the hall, something that always provides an added visual spectacle and seems to give extra energy. The orchestra's wonderful string sound made for a beautifully textured sonic treat, helped by the way Rattle shaped the music. It was frequently gentle and poetic, yet it also contained plenty of drama, often coming from those driving bass chords.

Monday, 21 February 2011

The Berliner Philharmoniker kick off their residence with a chamber concert of Schoenberg and more

This major four concert residence by one of the world's top orchestras was always going to be a hot ticket, more or less selling out promptly after the tickets first went on sale way back in December 2009. To ease the cost of bringing them, the concerts have been split between three halls at two venues. Despite a programme that wasn't the most obviously bankable, featuring an obscure Mahler chamber work and two pieces by Schoenberg, there was still a lengthy queue of hopefuls awaiting any returns at the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall. Inside, those who had secured a ticket included Mark Elder and Mitsuko Uchida (not to mention Simon Rattle, whose presence was only required on stage for the final work, though no doubt he didn't actually have to buy his ticket).

The first half featured a quartet drawn from the orchestra: Guy Braunstein and Christoph Streuli (violin), Amihai Grosz (viola) and Ludwig Quandt (cello). They began with Schubert's D703, all that remains or an uncompleted quartet. After a start that was perhaps not quite so assured as it might have been, they delivered a strong and intense reading. However, as is often the case with such fragments, it didn't entirely satisfy.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Disappointing Sibelius from Järvi and the RSNO

There aren't nearly enough Sibelius symphonies on the programmes of Scotland's main orchestras. How nice, then, to see his final two programmed together by the RSNO under the baton of Kristjan Järvi. The last time I heard a Sibelius symphony from the orchestra it was the 4th with his father Neeme at the 2007 Edinburgh festival, and very fine that was too.

In the end, though, it proved rather a shame we were getting Järvi jnr as opposed to snr. The 6th was the more problematic of the two, suffering more than anything from a feeling of being rush. Where was the heartbreaking beauty of those opening bars? More crucially, thoughout there was an absence of the evocative textures and atmospheres so rife in Sibelius's writing. Normally I find Sibelius to be one of the most visually stimulating composers, not so here. Gone too was the satisfyingly broad sweep of a great reading.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Company at the Southwark Playhouse, or in which it is shown that directors who desire to write Playsicals should be distrusted

Sitting in the Southwark Playhouse auditorium waiting for this show to start, I skimmed the director's notes. In them Joe Fredericks is anxious to inform his eager public of his own involvement in writing musicals (or as he terms them “Playsicals”). Something about this unfortunate choice of words and the generally eager gushing tone of the notes as a whole misgave me. Unfortunately my misgivings proved to be well founded. After the stunningly brilliant productions of Anyone can Whistle and Bells are Ringing which have recently graced off West End venues, the Southwark Playhouse's production of Company is of sadly inferior quality – let down by a director and choreographer who largely fail to get to grips with the nature of the show, and a group of performers pretty uniformly of B-list calibre. Put bluntly there is nobody here performing anywhere close to the standard of Anna-Jane Casey at the Union or Rosalie Craig, Issy van Randwyck and David Ricardo-Pierce at Jermyn Street.

The first problem lies in the staging. This is the first time I have seen the show, but my impression is that the action takes place in flashback, with interjections from Bobby's massed friends at the present day birthday party. At least that seemed to be what the production was going for. The trouble was that every time the cast became the chorus, most of them seemed to shed any sense of their individual characters (most of that sense being only skin deep to start with) and merge into a rather bland, generic ensemble. They were not helped at all by choreography which was ineffective at reinforcing relationships between the various characters, and degenerated in Side by Side by Side (the Act II opener) into a generic jazz hands, Producers style wheel number which didn't fit the material at all.

Ticciati and the SCO return for another round of Haydn and Stravinsky

After a first instalment which featured about as big a chamber orchestra as you get, Ticciati and the SCO continued their survey Stravinsky's chamber ballets with something scored for more modest forces, but the more satisfying for it. Indeed, after the stage had been reset, only the strings remained to perform Apollon musagète.

One measure of a good piece for string orchestra, and indeed a well performed one, is whether you miss all the instrumental textures that are absent. Not a trace of such concerts haunted this performance, which showed both the most wonderful range and a first class string sound (and some fine solo work from guest leader Matilda Kaul). Ticciati found plenty of drama in the score, especially the haunting power with which they worked their way towards the quiet ending.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Here's Runnicles, with Haydn's "mourning" and Brahms' German Requiem

In the concert hall, Donald Runnicles often seems most at home when taking on big and dramatic choral works, such as Mahler's epic 8th or Verdi's Requiem. So it was on Sunday night as he turned his baton to another great requiem, that of Johannes Brahms.

He took a generally slow approach and didn't always go all out, such as at the start of Denn alles fleisch, holding his fire for the big climaxes, and the more shattering they were for it. At the height of that second movement, also with Qual ruhret sie an and the passage from Revelation that closes the penultimate movement, Runnicles pulled together excellent playing and great choral singing to deliver a devastating emotional impact. It also was nice to have the Usher Hall organ getting a good workout, and made me glad this programme was on there and not just in City Halls, where doubtless they had to make do with a fake one which never feels quite the same, and I really do mean feel. (Edit - see the comments below - no organ was used in Glasgow.) Great climaxes, though, are for naught if the momentum is lost between them. Fortunately Runnicles' mastery of structure was once again on display.

Yet it was the Edinburgh Festival Chorus who were the evening's real stars. About five years ago, they often felt like a pale shadow of their historic selves; last night, however, they were as fine as I've ever heard them, showcasing just how far they've come recently under Christopher Bell. Not only was there a wonderful physical range, from the delicate passages to the loudest climaxes, not only fine control, but they also conveyed a powerful weight and emotion, nowhere more so than as they and the orchestra faded to nothing at the end.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

I can sing a rainbow - the SCO present Voice of a City

Taking my seat in the Usher Hall on Saturday afternoon, it was nice to see a rather different demographic than is normal at an SCO concert - a lot younger, for a start, and lots of families too. Similarly, I can't remember the last time I saw such an ocean of colour in the organ gallery.

They were there for Voice of a City, a concert bringing together singers, especially children, from across to the city, to perform with the SCO, the brainchild of their excellent education and outreach department. The first half was given over to The Land of Counterpane, a setting by Howard Blake of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson from A Child's Garden of Verses. It was originally composed for the tricentenary of The Mary Erskine School, and it was well over a hundred young singers from Erskine Stewart's Melville Schools who were there to perform it.

Boreyko takes the RSNO on a Russian journey

Most people, myself included, probably turned up to Friday's RSNO concert for the chance to hear Tchaikovsky's Pathetique symphony; indeed, the couple next to me who borrowed my programme during the interval appeared to have no idea what they'd just heard in the first half. However, that first half was every bit as fine and worth hearing.

Andrey Boreyko had selected a programme of all Russian music to sit alongside the Tchaikovsky. He led off with Anatoly Lyadov's The Enchanted Lake, a gentle yet immaculately textured curtain raiser. Here, as for much of the evening, he displayed a fine understanding that, in volume terms, less is often more. At times you needed to be able to hear a pin drop to appreciate the magical and evocative effects being created by orchestra, strings and flutes especially. It was slightly marred, therefore, by the audience around me being a little restless.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Lucrezia Borgia (a.k.a. A story about a little boy who loved his mother) at ENO, or in which Mike Figgis's powers of resistance are sadly inadequate

In an interview with Edward Seckerson in the programme for this production, Mike Figgis asserts that he tried hard to stay away from film. I can only say that it is regrettable that he did not try harder. For this is not simply a performance of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, but also a performance of Lucrezia Borgia: The Film for the Opera, the credits for which occupy an entire page of the booklet. Indeed so often is the film mentioned in the programme that one might be forgiven for imagining that to the production team and ENO's Artistic Director this was to be a screening of a new Mike Figgis film with a bit of opera by Donizetti tacked on (I am being slightly tongue in cheek here...but only slightly).

The resultant film dramatises three episodes from Lucrezia's life prior to the start of the opera (but positioned at roughly equal points during it), while a fourth installment features actors and actresses recreating two Renaissance paintings (the reasoning behind the last was particularly obscure to me). Intelligently integrated into other media film can add power and weight to a narrative; this one does not. Rather it consistently jars. Leaving aside the bizarre juxtaposition between a film soundtrack, I think by Ennio Morricone borrowing from Donizetti (the programme note is not at all clear on this), and Donizetti's actual music and the odd contrast between the film in Italian and the opera sung in English, the fact is that the film hopelessly compromises the dramatic tension of the opera.