Friday 27 April 2007

In memoriam Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007)

It was announced today that great Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich has died at the age of 80. There is little I can add the other obituaries that will be appearing in the next couple of days, indeed, they have added greatly to my knowledge - I knew little about his non-musical activities and was only vaguely aware he had been stripped of his Soviet citizenship for having stuck by Solzhenitsyn. Still, the Soviet Union's loss was the western musical world's gain.

I shall always remember him most fondly from the first recording of his I owned: the Bach cello suites. He was not my introduction to the works. That came from Yo Yo Ma (having heard him play the prelude from the G major suite on Aaron Sorkin's incomparable show, The West Wing). But Rostropovich's was different. Somehow it seemed to dig deeper. There are some who find it too romantic an approach, but it moves me greatly every time I hear it.

I have a wonderful DVD of him and Richter playing the Beethoven cello sonatas at the 1964 Edinburgh festival. The film, in black and white, was shot in the Usher Hall. The camera work a model of simplicity (that is alien, sadly, to today's classical music broadcasts) and a standard of audience behaviour that prompts feelings of nostalgia. It may be mono and the film is such that it struggles to keep up with the titans, their furious finger-work often blurring. It started at midnight (I believe because of difficulties one or both of the artists experienced getting there, but I may be incorrect on this). But for all of that, and perhaps because of it, it is utterly compelling.

Like so many musicians, he branched out into conducting. The above disc of Shostakovich's 11th symphony (possibly my favourite or them) is rather special indeed. In fact, it gave me hopes of a whole LSO live cycle from him, but it was not to be. In the end he only recorded two others with them: 5 and 8. I only bought the 5th, which was let down by terrible sound, but I have read so many complimentary things about the 8th that I shall probably have to buy it at some point. Of course, he did record all the symphonies, and Warner recently reissued them in a bargain box. Indeed, only the other day I was browsing through my local CD shop considering them. Perhaps when I've finished working through Kondrashin's survey I shall buy them....

I suspect it is a mark of the man that so many people wrote works for him: Britten a sonata, Shostakovich a concerto, Bernstein the meditations from his Mass (and I'm sure countless further examples besides).

All in all, a towering musician and a sad loss. Still, it was a refreshing changed, when I stumbled across the news on the BBC website this morning, that his death was recorded not only as 'breaking news', but also the third headline down from the top.

Monday 23 April 2007


Apologies, to anyone actually reading this, for the lack of updates lately. Below you'll find my views on Saturday's performance of Belshazzar's Feast by the Edinburgh Choral Union and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

The other update you may notice is the button to the right. Like many, we're shocked at the kidnapping of BBC reporter Alan Johnston, an action which cannot but hurt the Palestinian people. We join with others in hoping for his safe return. Click on the link to register your support.

In the coming days you can look forward to part two of Festival 2005 and my first instalment of the Runnicles discography (probably starting with his most recent disc - Tristan with Christine Brewer).

"Let us not go to Camelot, 'tis a silly place."

The Edinburgh Choral Union perform Belshazzar's Feast

Scotland, and more particularly Edinburgh, is home to some very fine choruses indeed, that of the SCO is a particular favourite of mine. But they have their limitations: being partnered to a chamber orchestra means there are some works they can't realistically perform. Indeed, even in the fine performance Sir Charles Mackerras gave of Clemenza di Tito at the 2005 festival, they were supplemented by forces from the RSAMD (if memory serves, I can't find my programme and a web search hasn't turned up the answer - the EIF webpage lists only the SCO Chorus, but that wasn't the whole story). For many years a bigger sound was best obtained from the Festival Chorus; however, more recently this has not been the case. Indeed, on the last flyer I saw, they were using a quote describing them as one of the finest choruses in Europe, the problem: the quote from Herbert von Karajan who cannot have conducted them for at least 20 years. In part their decline is due to a lack of men (a number which has dwindled ever more in the years I have been attending). I have heard others attribute its problems to the fact it only performs for three weeks of the year. When it was formed (to perform Mahler's 8th) there was no large chorus in Scotland, now there are others, others that perform the year round. Either way, I could sense Mackerras's frustration in Beethoven's 9th symphony last year as they fell short of the standard reached by the best ensembles (though they did fare much better for Meistersinger). I did wonder if the problem might simply be due to a lack of good choral singers (or a lack of people willing to sing chorally). Then, almost exactly a year ago, this hypothesis was proved wrong as we heard the Choral Union in Elgar's The Kingdom. A stunning work (and in my view superior to Gerontius). Their precision and the quality of their sound was amongst the finest I have heard. It didn't hurt that they were accompanied by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins.

So, their performance this year was a must. I had hoped, as I always do, for a Mahler 8. Instead we got Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, a work I only really knew from a Proms broadcast last year from Hickox and the BBC NOW. On the radio it hadn't grabbed me. But it's the kind of work that benefits from a live performance. But that wasn't until the second half.

The programme started with J B McEwen (totally unknown to me, and, it seems, Wikipedia) and the second of his three Border Ballads, that of Grey Galloway. And very enjoyable it was too. It reminded me vaguely of the sort of Americana that Copeland conjures in the finale of his third symphony (though listening to the latter last night, they don't really sound as similar as I thought when I was in the concert hall).

This was followed by Walton's first symphony. Again, with the exception the few exerts I've heard on the radio from the recent Davis LSO Live version, this work too was new to me (notwithstanding the fact the Mackerras recording has been sitting on my to be listened to shelf for quite some time). And what a fun piece it is. There are some wonderful climaxes, some interesting orchestrations and plenty of excitement. The orchestra, once again the BBC Scottish, under Rumon Gamba (who danced around a lot, but it seemed to have an effect so it didn't annoy) played wonderfully. But if I were to criticise the work I would suggest two flaws. I found the first movement far and away the most enjoyable. I also think it could be argued that he had a few too many ideas, which could have done with more room to breath.

And so, to the conclusion. Interestingly, it was commissioned by the BBC as a chamber work (they pulled out after the scale of Walton's composition started to become apparent and it was deemed unfit for broadcast). And you could see their point: so overflowing was the organ gallery that some of the singers were on the stairs. The Choral Union's forces were augmented by those of the Belfast Philharmonic Choir and the National Youth Choir of Scotland. Perhaps this scale, combined with the nature of the work, meant that I didn't feel it showcased the ensemble's vocal talents quite so well as The Kingdom did last year. The work itself is a setting of, or rather after, the bible. And Osbert Sitwell's word are certainly interesting in and of themselves. The orchestration is of the kitchen sink school, no implement is neglected, but at its finest. And, at times, bizarrest. Why does he choose to accentuate 'eunuchs' (the particularly unfortunate fate of the sons in the opening paragraph) and 'concubines' so? The sillyness is lent extra weight as reinforcements of trumpets force their way into the already crowded organ gallery about a third of the way in.

But I don't mean sillyness in a derogatory way. This is silly its glorious, finest sense. The full weight of which is unleashed as the false gods are praised. The gods of gold, iron, wood, glass and others (all brought off by percussion, some more successfully than others). But this series of climaxes is quite stunning and was brought off wonderfully (though in truth it lacks the out and out weight of, say, the 5th door in Bluebeard's Castle). The only problem is there's still about a third of the work to go and, to some extent, Walton has spent his biggest climax. When the writing appears on the wall and Belshazzar is 'WEIGHED IN THE BALANCE AND FOUND WANTING' (capitalised as in the programme, though the score doesn't really suggest this weight), it is somewhat underwhelming. And similarly the end, neither does it have the out and out tsunami of a Mahler 8, nor the quiet oblivion of the Verdi Requiem, but a rather unsatisfactory middle ground.

Apparently the Choral Union had just been in Belfast, but curiously they had not performed the Walton, doing instead Mendelssohn's Elijah. Part of me was a little sorry we didn't get that programme.

None of which is to say that it isn't enormous fun: it is. But I don't think it ranks among the greatest choral works. I wonder how well it would fare on a recording. Certainly I think it's the kind of work that makes for a good opening concert, but no one you'd want to hear too often. As I turned to Finn and whispered as the applause rang out "Let us not go to Camelot, 'tis a silly place."

Thursday 5 April 2007

Review: David Heath's An Everyday Occurrence

It’s an every day occurrence…aging clarinet player stuck in a rut, goes on tour, has drunken one night stand with new young colleague…she refuses to have an abortion…wife leaves in disgust…the characters lament their plight…It’s an every day occurrence….

So goes the plot of David Heath’s new chamber opera, An Everyday Occurrence. Played by Mr McFall’s Chamber, an intriguing hybrid offshoot of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and with three generally excellent soloists this was a musically fascinating premiere. Andrea Baker and Angela Tunstall's soprano pyrotechnics were particularly impressive. This was my first encounter with Heath’s music. It was lyrical with some exciting vocal setting, particularly in the final trio. I thought I heard echoes of both Sondheim and Gershwin.

Dramatically, it plays with theatrical convention, having singers playing musicians rise from within the orchestra and give us their stream of consciousness as they are performing. It also mocks stereotypes. There is an arrogant German conductor (played by Heath himself), who conducts almost entirely in 4/4, imitates a monkey to emphasise emotion and is really only interested in his fee. Even worse is the new Orchestral Manager who is preparing to fire several members of both choir and orchestra in order to preserve his excessively augmented management team as they prepare a major rebranding. The staging was simple but effective, particularly the use of a pair of ghastly striped sofas, only the moment of the one night stand failed to come off. The whole showed off the Queen’s Hall as a location for such performances.

The trouble comes with the main plot. As far as can be judged from the programme, Heath seems to have written his own text and for me it didn’t quite work, particularly in the spoken dialogue which is mostly all in rhyme. Sondheim is the clear echo here, and Heath, as a lyricist, is simply not in the same league. There is also a problem of story. Perhaps it’s deliberate – hence the title of the piece – but the characters seem rather one dimensional, and this is exacerbated by the pacing of the piece. It all happens too conveniently. We are introduced to the young wind player, Suzanne, with a lament about the fact that she has just had an abortion to try to hold on to her boyfriend. For her penultimate aria she sings to a TV screen displaying an ultrasound scan, promising to protect her new baby. That in particular felt almost like a sermon, although I may have read into it more than was there on account of a programme note about Heath's recent "profound religious experience".

The piece also had a problem dramatising interaction between the characters. When Suzanne tells John she’s pregnant, there is virtually no dialogue between them. When John’s wife, having discovered the affair, throws him out of the house, John is given no chance to respond. Perhaps this is intended as a dramatic device, illustrating the failure of communication but I did not find it effective. In consequence of the structure of the story and this problem of interaction I was increasingly less engaged with the characters' plight. The final trio, though musically intense and impressively performed, left me emotionally cold.

But these criticisms should not be taken to mean that you shouldn’t see the piece, which is repeated in Glasgow tomorrow night at the RSAMD. It is refreshing to see an attempt at a "slice of life" in opera and it is very well performed. It should also not be taken to mean that Heath is not an effective dramatic composer. I hope he writes more opera, but I hope he finds a librettist to join the collaboration.

Tuesday 3 April 2007

Festival 2005, Part I

As promised, the first in a series of posts from the 2005 Festival. Originally posted at the Naim forum, and slightly revised and expanded. Actually, reading back over these makes me realise how much better a writer and reviewer of things I am now, so I apologise in advance for the quality. I have italicised those bits I've added.

Things started off the other Sunday (the 14th August) with a truly excellent performance of the Verdi requiem (which will be broadcast on Radio 3 in September, the 11th, I think). It featured the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted wonderfully by Donald Runnicles. Sadly the Festival Chorus continue to be very short staffed in the male department, which was the performance's only real drawback. Violeta Urmana was outstanding among a strong quartet of soloists. This performance was the first time I feel in love with the work (having previously only known it from Abbado's Berlin recording). Many of the hallmarks of a great Runnicles performance were present, not least his genius for orchestral placement - the balance of the off-stage trumpets was just right. The festival chorus may be imperfect, but the effect at the end, as they faded away so tantalisingly was pure magic.

Monday was even better. A visit from Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (for those of you who don't know, a youth orchestra composed of Israeli, Palestinian, Syrian and Egyptian kids), something that would be worth supporting regardless of the musical merit. Fortunately, they play very well indeed. True, there are youth orchestras with more polish (this is not the Gustav Mahler youth orchestra, they come next Friday), but none that play quite so much energy and enthusiasm. The highlight of the programme was a highly charged reading of the Beethoven 5th Symphony. Barenboim then gave an interesting speech to the effect that while the orchestra obviously couldn’t bring peace, it could help understanding, hopefully. They then played the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan (apparently Israeli kids in the orchestra had asked him if they could play some Wagner). They were at the proms the day before (doing Mahler 1) and that concert repeats on Radio 3 on Friday afternoon. Well worth watching if they come to a concert hall near you.

Tuesday saw a slightly less star studded than expected Clemenzo di Tito. Bostridge had pulled out at the last minute (and, indeed, out of the recording). Still, Reiner Trost stood in creditably well at the last minute. Mackerras conducted the SCO brilliantly and the other singers were excellent. Kozena was good, but I’m not quite sure I see what all the fuss is about. Sir Charles will be doing Fidelio with the SCO in October (and very wonderful it was too - perhaps one day the BBC will see fit to release the recording which also featured the excellent Christine Brewer in the title role), both up here and in London as part of his 80th birthday celebrations. Perhaps the star for me was the lovely Christine Rice as Annio. The same forces had recorded this for DG just a few weeks before, and very fine that recording is too. Indeed, in some regards finer than the concert - the balance of the forces in the hall was not always perfectly kind to Trost, an issue eliminated on the CD.

Wednesday saw a disappointing Mahler 9th with the RSNO (under Jiri Belohlavek, now in charge of the BBCSO), who are definitely Scotland’s 3rd orchestra these days. It suffered from a symptom I identified for the first time in this performance, and one I find plagues many readings I've heard on disc since: in the wrong hands the work feels like an unconnected series of miniatures each lasting just a couple of minutes, which produces a result I find very unengaging. Contrast this with, say, Bernstein's 1970s DVD performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, where the music seems to shift organically from one phase to the next.

However, on Thursday Runnicles returned with the BBC SSO to do a wonderful Mahler 3. A tricky symphony a the best of times, he managed to hold the tension perfectly so the end was not the let down it can be in the wrong hands. The off-stage horn was used to especially good effect in the 3rd movement. That off-stage horn is one of the most magical moments I have ever experienced in the concert hall, and benefits from a little explanation. I was in the dress circle (lucky me) quite a way round, such, if you know the Usher Hall, that I was almost side-on to the orchestra. Not, you might think, ideal, as one needs to sit twisted round in one's seat. Then came the third movement 'What the animals in the forest tell me.' and the doors to the circle had opened, outside them was the horn (not that it was visible). And there was this perfect balance with the horn on my left and the orchestra on my right, I don't mean balance in that they were equal levels, mind, the level was so that you could hear it perfectly but had to strain that little bit. But it remains one of the most sublime things I have ever heard. For once, the acoustics of the foyer there (which can mean you hear the glasses being laid out for the interval), were perfect. I also remember very clearly that the woman I was seated next to was one of the worst fidgets I have experienced. Something that often drives me to distraction, but not that night. Indeed, the others were surprised I had not been more bothered. Sadly my recording system failed that year and I was unable to tape the Radio 3 broadcast. Possibly just as well, as the recording would not have captured quite all the magic, but I do wish this concert would be released. I remember the sorrow of Birgitta Svenden in the fourth movement, the sparkle of the women of the festival chorus and the RSNO junior chorus in the fifth. And, as importantly as anything, Runnicles' mastery of the finale, such that the emotion final bars were far from the anticlimax they can be.

Friday saw the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Giuliano Garella for Rossini's Adelaide di Borgogna, which I didn't enjoy. But then I'm no huge fan of Rossini, and even at the best of times I'm not convinced how well his operas work in concert. But I was in a minority, Finn, and the others with us, disagreed with me forcefully afterwards.

Well, that's all for now. Part two will bring the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Mackerras in melodrama, the Death of Klinghoffer and more.

Original post published on Thursday 1st September 2005

Sunday 1 April 2007

Between now and August

Obviously there will not be all that much festival related stuff to cover in the coming months (though we may well post our thoughts about the programme). So what, if anything, is going to appear here between now and then?

Festivals Past

In both 2005 and 2006, I recorded my thoughts over at the Naim Forum. Over the coming weeks I'll be republishing those posts here. So you can look forward to last year's Beethoven and Bruckner symphony cycles, Mahler 3 from Runnicles, The Death of Klinghoffer and much more.

Runnicles' Discography

Despite having been a fan of Donald Runnicles for some time, I only actually got round to buying a CD of his last summer: his disc of Beethoven's 9th symphony with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. And quite something it is too. It prompted me to visit his official discography which got me thinking. Many of the artists I admire, for example Charles Mackerras, have such vast discographies that it is difficult to acquire them in full, and reviewing them would be a vast labour. Indeed, in the case of Mackerras it is further complicated as there are a number of discs which are no longer available. But Runnicles' discography is of a manageable size, so I resolved to first pick up and then review it all. Originally I conceived this as a series of posts over at the Naim Forum, but with the advent of this blog, they will appear here first.

Other interests

In my first post, I mentioned that this site would cover more than simply the EIF or Runnicles. The third link on our list will take you to Venue 40. During the Fringe (a competing festival which overlaps with the first two weeks of the EIF), the Edinburgh Quaker Meeting House becomes a venue. We install raked seating for around 60 people and run a full theatre programme of 5 shows. This in addition to a vegetarian cafe during the daytime. The whole thing is staffed on a volunteer basis (of which I am one) with the profits going to charity. So we'll be plugging that here too, and probably reviewing the shows we go to there. During August the Venue 40 site will have more comprehensive reviews. Please note, if you go there now you'll only see the 2006 programme, 2007 is not yet finalised but we'll post here when it is.

On the left you'll also find links to the various music (or music related forums) where I post. The Naim Audio Forum is run by hi-fi maker Naim and while its music room covers all genres, there is a dedicated and at times very knowledgeable group of classical contributers: take, for example, this round-up of recordings of the Emperor concerto. Of course it's primarily intended for those who own Naim kit, but there are people there who don't, and the music room can always benefit from new members. There are also links to the BBC Radio 3 message boards, though in recent weeks they have been severely curtailed, with discussion on all bar a few programmes banned, and the offshoot prompted by this decision: R3OK. Lastly there is the forum at Pink Fish Media, another hi-fi forum first and foremost, but anyone with classical interests would be more than welcome to the music room there.