Wednesday 30 May 2007

Festival 2005, part III

It shouldn't take this long to copy and paste two year old writings from another forum, but hey. However, for any who may have been waiting, here is week three of the 2005 Edinburgh International Festival, first posted over at the Naim forum. Click here for weeks 1 and 2. However, on rereading it, it appears to have been written at a time when my computer failed me and is rather less detailed that I would like. As a result I have preceded it with my round-up of that year's chamber concerts. Once again, revisions are italicised.

In addition to the main evening concerts, the festival also has the morning Queen’s Hall series (which are going out at around lunch time on Radio 3 at the moment). These are chamber music and have been a little mixed. They started off with Llyr Williams on Monday the 15th. He’s apparently a very highly regarded pianist, though lord only knows why. He started off with a terrible Schubert D960 sonata, the pauses extended far, far too long. His use of the echo pedal (sorry, I don’t know the technical term) was so excessive that all the notes were muddy and garbled. This, coupled with the disconcerting way he kept turning round to look at the audience, was annoying. His Chopin preludes were a little better, but I shall not be making an effort to see him again.

Wednesday and we had some viola sonatas. Sadly the pianist, Crawford-Philips, was not very good: far too intrusive during the Brahms. The Britten and Prokofiev were better, mainly because it’s virtually impossible to play intrusively in those. The Prokofiev (scenes from Romeo and Juliet) was the highlight. Thursday gave us the wonderful Belcea Quartet with a very long programme. A Haydn trio, the Beethoven op.70 and the Schubert D898. They confirmed my opinion that they really are an outstanding group, and the play with such a wonderful excitement. Friday and Kozena followed her appearance in Clemenza with some lieder (accompanied Edinburgh stalwart Martineau – also far too intrusive!). The outstanding songs here were by Britten, lullabies (op 41), and Shostakovich, satires (op 109). Indeed they were so good, I picked up the cd there and then.

Into week two and Monday saw lieder from Maltman and Martineau: a mix of Schubert, Schumann, Mahler and Strauss. It was good, though I don’t really know the works well enough to review it properly. Tuesday gave us the first of the Janacek String Quartet’s concerts playing Dvorak. The op.105 sting quartet didn’t really do anything for me. However, in the second half was a really wonderful performance of the op.81 piano quintet which melded together really well. Wednesday, and Martineau accompanies Brachmann in Schubert and Mahler. The Mahler (Wunderhorn) is particularly fine. Thursday was the second of the Janacek’s two concerts. It was less good. The op.34 string quartet was on a par with their tuesday performance. Sadly the second half (and string quintet, op.97) was not nearly as wonderful as Tuesday’s piano quintet. I would also like to have had some Janacek from them. Indeed, I’d like to see a little more adventure in the programming in general (how about some Bartok and Shostakovich too). Friday and the Michelangelo Quartet gave competent reading of Mozart’s k387, Haydn’s op.77 no. 2 and the Schubert string quintet. While there was nothing wrong with it, it didn’t blow me away either. Indeed, that has been the hallmark of much of the Queen’s Hall series this year: competent but not outstanding.

Review of the 3rd week to follow (my computer recently went and died on me!). It appears that the problems of my computer (repeated hard disk failure, Apple's refusal to fix it effectively remains a sore spot) meant that I never got round to that, so I have thrashed out the brief notes I made in response to some else's postings as best I can recall.

Tuesday 30th saw the Bamberg Orchestra's first concert (or, at least, the first I went to, for some reason I wasn't at Monday's Mahler 5, odd given how much I am a fan of the music, certainly nothing in the programme explains my absence) of Wagner's Tristan and Islode. As mentioned in my previous post, this was remarkable for the presence of Christine Brewer's Isolde. The Bamberg Orchestra played well enough, and certainly made all the right sounds, but, somehow, failed to go that extra mile.

Brendel, on the Wednesday, had lost none of his skill, and was absolutely stunning. Actually, I was in two minds as to whether or not to go to this concert, and was surprisingly able to get a ticket shortly before hand. My apprehension stemmed from my previous encounter with the artist in the concert hall. That had been in a performance of Beethoven's 3rd concerto with the Philharmonia at the Anvil in Basingstoke a few years earlier. A lot of the problem was the small size of the stage to the large size of the orchestra. They started with an overture, if memory serves, and then a number of the players cleared out so the forces were more appropriate to the concerto. The result was that almost all the members of the orchestra were on one side of the stage and the piano on the other, and behind Dohnanyi (who seemed to make little effort to communicate). The result was an odd balance and a rather unsatisfactory performance. However, I put much of this down to unprofessionalism on the part of the conductor. Certainly Brendel still sparkled in the solo repertoire (I don't know if I would still go to hear him in a concerto). True, the Usher Hall was not without its problems (as often with smaller ensembles, the sound of glasses being put out for the interval was clearly audible (hopefully this problem will be eliminated in the renovations, which they appear to be blogging). But none of that mattered. We got commanding performances of Mozart's 9 variations of a minuet by Duport, Schumann's Kreisleriana, Schubert's momens musicals and Beethoven's op.28 pastoral (followed by an encore of Bach). Persuasive not only in his playing, he also instantly silence some clapping between movements with the subtlest of gestures. His recital this year was near the top of my list of priorities.

I wrote nothing about the Thursday concert and can recall only two things: that Ravel's Bolero is an absolutely interminable piece of music and that Ming Campbell was to be spotted in the audience.

Friday was more interesting. We had Ligeti's 100 metronomes - his Poeme Symphonique. As you come into the hall, there they are, arranged in 4 squares of 25, all ticking away. One by one they fall silent. Wonderfully silly (and interesting). However, it says something a little telling that, Brewer aside, it is my fondest memory of the Bambergers residence. I enjoyed Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, sang by Alice Coote (though they really need to sort out having the house lights stay up when there's text). Also, I'm not clear whether it was deliberate not to light the singer's face, I suspect not.

As to the Bambergers and Nott, I went to 4 of their 5 concerts and by the end of the week I think I'd nailed his problem: he doesn't give the 'big picture'. Sure, he gets some nice sounds now and then, but over all.... The closing concert (aside from being far, far too long) was terrible to sit through. I'm a little ashamed to admit that the Schubert 8th was the first time I've ever felt moved to boo after a performance, but it was truly terrible. Clearly Nott hadn't read the tempo makings as both the Allegro and the Andante were played at a snail's pace (and, indeed, the Andante seemed the faster of the two!). In fairness, some (e.g. Furtwangler) can get away with perverse tempi, Nott couldn't and the result was interminable. The Schubert 1 was interesting, not least because he'd decided to try and go for some 'period performance' technique, sadly the orchestra wasn't up to it. I don't mean to imply they were bad players, just this style was not their thing, and it rather showed. Why they decided to do that on the Schubert, yet not the Mozart is also little puzzling. He clearly thinks he knows Schubert (he's recorded enough of it) but my advice would be to steer very well clear. It wasn't all bad, though I think the Bolero should never, under any circumstances, be played (I have since heard one or two bearable recordings, but I could live perfectly happy never hearing it again). However, I think it's a good lesson that 5 concerts by the same band in the same week is certainly too much.

Over all it's been a good year, though I wonder whether McMaster is holding back a little for his final throw of the dice next year.

Coming up soon, Festival 2006, which was much better chronicled and will require less revision. Please note, this in no way implies it will be posted here any sooner!

Sunday 20 May 2007

Discography: Tristan und Isolde

Some while back, I promised to embark on a project to survey the discography of Donald Runnicles (since he's sufficiently young for the task to be conceivable in a way that it isn't with other baton wielding heroes of mine, such as Charles Mackerras). It seems vaguely appropriate to start with Runnicles' most recent recording: Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. And what a competitive field it is. Certainly one of the most crowded amongst Wagner's operas and with such titans as the incomparable Furtwangler/Flagstad recording (which had the interesting feature of Schwarzkopf being drafted in to sing the high notes) and Carlos Kleiber which featured the advantage of the Dresden Orchestra and, as with Furtwangler, the incomparable Kurwenal of Fischer-Dieskau.

How then, can Runnicles hope to compete? Certainly he has his work cut out for him. His forces are the BBC Symphony Orhcestra, the Tristan of John Treleaven, the Brangane of Dagmar Peckova and the Kurwenal of Boaz Daniel. But he does have one ace: Isolde is sung by Christine Brewer, one of the finest Wagnerian singers of her generation and, for many, a key reason for investing in this set. Indeed, one of the reasons, other than the conductor, I was looking forward to it, since I had heard her sing the role for Nott and the Bambergers back at the 2005 Edinburgh festival (the review of which I shall be posting in the future). It's worth noting that this set (at mid price on Warner) comes from a series of live concerts given for broadcast on Radio 3 in December 2002 and February 2003. As with Bernstein, he gave an act on each occasion (though the question of how live that recording was is a valid one).

The prelude is taken slowly. Indeed this is a slow set and, at over 4 hours, fits comfortably onto 4 discs, as opposed to the 3 taken by Pappano or Kleiber. Runnicles draws wonderful playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, though I do find myself wishing that he had had the Dresden Staatskapelle with whom he has recorded a sublime disc of Wagner chunks or even the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, with whom he has greatly impressed me in Edinburgh. The slow tempo fits much better than it did on his recent disc with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra that also opened with the prelude. As one would expect from Runnicles, he builds the prelude wonderfully. With the first voice he shows his genius for placement that has been so evident in his concert performances: the distance of sailor is perfect. Brewer is superb and rides the orchestra well. There is vibrato, but not offensively so (I'm particularly averse to excessive vibrato in my singers). Brangane is good too, and not the problem that, for me, Brigitte Fassbaender is for Kleiber. And in Boaz Daniel, we find another set that has a strong Tristan. True, we are not in Kleiber territory where Fischer-Dieskau is in danger of stealing the show, but that is probably just as well. The Tristan of John Treleaven is a little rough, but this is no bad thing. Certainly, for example, I find Kollo rather too nice. Again and again Runnicles shows his strength as an accompanist, giving his singers the support they need without trampling them. But there is no shortage of power when required and the sheer drama he creates when Isolde calls for the ship to be wrecked is frightening. Brewer is impressive, the bitterness of "Todd uns beiden!" (death to us both), is chilling as is Brangane's horror at "Der Todestrank!". Tristan lacks fire in his first encounter with Isolde. But the sailors (the Apollo Voices) are wonderful, especially for their "Ho, He". Tristan and Isolde are both strong in the climax, though I would like more power from Treleaven.

Act two begins well enough, and the horns of the hunting party going out are nicely done, though they do not fade gradually away so perfectly as on other recordings. The second scene is both exciting and erotic, though not to the same extent as Kleiber's recording. But I prefer the more tender interruptions of Runnicles' Brangane. Again, his command of the score is wonderful as he keeps bringing out echoes of the Ring. Brewer's and Treleaven's voices blend well in the duets and while the eroticism isn't as powerful as it might be, they find instead a wonderful otherworldlyness. Scene three is even finer, marked by some excellent string playing and Peter Rose's Konig Marke.

Eugene Ginty's shepherd opens the final act well enough. Treleaven's performance as Tristan, while not in perfect voice, is superbly acted (the more so when compared with Kollo's dramatically rather limp efforts), the several climaxes as he wakes from his delirium are quite something. Again (as with both Kleiber and Furtwangler) this proves to be a set with an exceptional Kurwenal though, unlike Fischer-Dieskau on the Kleiber set, Boaz Daniel is not in danger of upstaging the eponymous hero. But there are two stars here, the emotional weight Runnicles brings to the score, not least for the arrival of both ships (the horn that announces the first of them is particularly well played) and, of course, Brewer. The drama and chaos of all the deaths is also effective, though Kurwenal's is not so heartbreaking as Fischer-Dieskau. But Marke's "Tot den alles" is suitably chilling. It is left to Runnicles and Brewer to take us magically through to the close. I can't wait for the pair to repeat this at the Proms with Gotterdammerung, and I wish she'd had Runnicles for an accompanist when she sang this in Edinburgh.

Overall, then, a fine set. Worth buying both for Runnicles and Brewer (and a number of creditably performances in the more minor roles). However, excluding Brewer, none of the singers really rival the greatest performers in the roles, and remarkably well though the BBC Symphony Orchestra play, they are not of the calibre of, say, Kleiber's Dresdeners. Which leaves what, for many, will be the set's biggest flaw: John Treleaven's Tristan. Actually, I think this is unfair. He acts the part well enough (disappointingly rare, these days) and his voice is certainly not poor. But neither can it be pretended that he is in the same league as the likes of Windgassen (but then, who is?), particularly in terms of the power he has to call on.

Monday 14 May 2007

Why would it be silly just to pack it in, sir?

Benjamin Britten’s penultimate opera, Owen Wingrave, is rarely revived, and as far as the London critics are concerned should not have been revived on this occasion. I disagree, and so should any classical music lover for two reasons, the musical performances are almost all excellent and the Linbury Theatre is revealed as an ideal space for this kind of chamber opera piece.

So what about the piece itself? Much of the material, based on a Henry James short story, is strong. Owen, the sole child of a family devoted to military service, throws up his destined career. His infuriated family summon him back to the haunted family manse. There they seek to grind him down, headed by the cadaverous figure of his grandfather, General Sir Philip Wingrave, and abetted by haunting film shots of his various ancestors, hung over with the air of empire and the trenches. As they denounce him for his betrayal, his weakness, we gradually become aware of the determination behind Owen’s refusal to fight. As he sings in his evocation of the benefits of peace, “peace is strong”. So far so good, but at this point we do hit a snag in the drama, and, indeed, Britten’s music. Among the family rejecting him, is his fiancĂ©e Kate. After his tutor, Coyle, it is to her that Owen’s pleas are most frequently addressed. Her rejection, as opposed to that of the family really breaks him. Denounced by her as a coward, Owen expresses a willingness to do any act, and she commands him to pass the night in the haunted bedroom where, once, long ago, an ancestor died in mysterious circumstances having murdered his son for refusing to strike another child. Owen is locked in and dies in a similarly obscure fashion. Both musically, and dramatically, the piece ebbs at the end.

Not so the production, which despite going over the top once or twice, is highly effective. It takes place on two levels. The main stage dominated by a long, simple black table, and a raised corridor, from which the table is later hurled, on which the door to the fated room appears, and upon which are projected various telling pieces of film. Such devices usually irritate me, here they are mostly very effective. They include a library, from which Owen draws a real volume of Shelley’s poems (from among the artificially projected titles), and the various shots of his ancestors already referred to. But their great moment comes in the family dinner which closes the first act. The cast are all seated side on, with the exception of the gaunt General. Their faces are only visible to us via the camera projections on the back screen, which successfully move among the protagonists, before finally revealing the ghost of the child, visible on film and to the inhabitants of the room, but not to the audiences naked eye. The odd combination of the weight of these ancestors and their ghostly quality is effectively achieved throughout, and menace is effectively conjured by placing the door on the higher level – though even that cannot quite overcome the problem of the conclusion.

The highlights among this excellent cast are the Coyles and Owen Wingrave himself. The latter has much the hardest part but was possessed of excellent diction and sang with beauty and power throughout. Owen and Coyle seemed reminiscent of Billy and Vere in Billy Budd. Coyle whose books cannot provide him with the answers to family quarrels, Owen whose fight is fated to be lost. The frequent brass fanfares also seemed to recall the decks of the Indomitable.

The major change from that world is the importance of the female relationships. I believed in the bitterness of Kate’s mother when she sees her hopes of her daughter making a secure marriage dashed. I was drawn in by Mrs Coyle’s increasing dislike of the Wingrave household. And Kate’s shifting character I also found well drawn. At first she’s a cipher, joining the family hue and cry against the reprobate, and, like them, sounding vocally a little shrill. Then she’s the dutiful child at the General’s right arm at dinner, “keeping him young”. Next, she’s the heartless vamp flirting with Lechmere, Owen’s fellow student. But then something deepens. Having mercilessly rejected Owen’s pleas for understanding, she returns to him when the others have retired. They quickly quarrel and she accuses him of cowardice. This confrontation is among the most convincing moments of the opera. Musically things seem to be moving towards a climax. Instead, they peter out with the unsatisfactory ending already discussed. In this staging Kate cries out. The rest of the company rush to the fatal doorway. Kate’s mother glances inside and swoons. The General looks in and remarks that he is now the last of the family. Kate announces Owen’s death and her regrets. Then what one assumes are the ghosts of Owen and the murdered child emerge from the doorway, make their way down to kneel at the foot of the stage.

Despite the problems of the ending, I was struck by the highly critical tone of the reviews in all the major papers, especially given the superb performances here, whatever one may thing of the music or, indeed, the production. I wondered, in some cases, whether it actually has something to do with a fundamental point about the material. Do we still find it hard to recognise that a sacrifice in the cause of peace can be as noble as a sacrifice on the more obvious battlefield. In a way, the opera simply asks the same question that Baldrick puts to Blackadder in the trenches – “Why would it be silly just to pack it in, sir? Why?” This is still a question to which the militarists have no adequate answer, but which they are not asked nearly often enough. For that reason, if for no other, it seems to me important that Owen Wingrave should be staged.

Sunday 13 May 2007

Where's Runnicles goes to the Movies

Aside from classical music and other 'high' culture, I also enjoy my share at the other end of the spectrum. I read, and very much enjoy comic books. Indeed, I think in a lot of ways, they're the literary equivalent of opera. The plots are often silly (very) but they blend two forms (words and pictures) much as opera does (music and theatre). Like opera, this isn't always even. Take, for example, Figaro, where it doesn't really matter what they're singing about. Britten's Paul Bunyan, on the other hand, has wonderful music with an Auden libretto: who could ask for more? Similarly, sometimes you get comic books with great words and lousy pictures, or vice versa. But enough of the time the two come together to give something very special. And like all forms of fantasy, at their best, as well as having entertaining action, they can comment on world in quite a clever way.

It will come as little surprise, therefore, that I also like comic book movies. Not all of them, there have been some real turkeys. But in recent years Hollywood seems to have got it down to a fine art. It started with Spider-Man 2. There are so many things I love about the film. There is a wonderful magical realism - the way that after he's been forced to break up with Mary-Jane (as his nocturnal activities mean he can't give her the time she deserves), he walks down the street and every poster is of her. In a film set in the real world this would seem silly, but this is a comic book and it beautifully underscores how he can't get away from her. Then there's the moment towards the end when, beaten, he struggles to stop a runaway train. And it's difficult, really difficult. It's the first time I'd seen a super-hero really struggle in a movie. Then we had Batman Begins and Superman Returns, which accomplished the near impossible task of making me feel sorry for the Man of Steel. Here again was magical realism: Lois Lane is to win a Pulitzer for her story Why the World doesn't need Superman. The man she loved has vanished, and in this comic-book world she can write a prize winning article saying, basically, "ha, I didn't need you anyway".

All of which only makes it the film we just saw more disappointing. There's no good way to say this: Spider-Man 3 is one of the very worst films I have ever seen.

So bad, I don't really know where to being. I suppose the start would be as well. On a positive note there were some promising trailers (especially for the third, silly, Pirates of the Caribbean) and a particularly amusing Orange advert. But it was downhill from there. In the second film, the opening credits were very clever indeed. As the names of the actors flashed up we got a series of comic illustrations neatly recapping the story so far. This time we got much less effective, and much more overdone, film clips. It was long (about two and half hours), though in all honesty shortening it would only have improved it in the sense of not having to endure quite so much. The dialogue was awful. It wasn't even the good kind of corny dialogue, it was just plain bad and often cringe-inducing. It read like something that could have been written by a seven year old for his English homework. The script was horribly predictable. It had clearly cost a fortune and yet and the big, long, computer generated action sequences were both confusing and totally devoid of any excitement. Of course, this wasn't helped by a score that didn't exactly set the pulse racing.

And the villains! We got the Sandman and Venom (and sort-of the Green Goblin). Perhaps this excess, one would ordinarily have been enough, was a problem. We began with Peter Parker fighting his friend Harry (who took over from his father as the Green Goblin at the end of the last film, believing Parker had killed him). This caused Harry to lose his memory, and we were tediously back to square one. Well, square one and a half as we waited for the Sandman to gain his powers and then do nothing more exciting with them than rob a few banks. Venom was, if anything, duller. Spider-Man became infected and briefly evil, though director Sam Rami's representation of evil, which seemed primarily to consist of Parker strutting to 70s disco music, was a little off the beaten track. Predictably he threw this off, only for it to infect his rival photographer who seemed to have been put there expressly for the purpose. The culmination, rather than the world in danger, was for the Sandman and Venom to team up and suspend Mary-Jane from a large building. Harry rallies to Parker's aid, his butler, in best Paul Burrell style, having suddenly remembered that he knew all along that Parker didn't kill his father and after much computer generated faffing around, disposes of the Sandman with rather disappointing ease (who, it turns out, actually murdered Parker's uncle Ben - in what I am sure is a departure from the comics, and so we were back with the 'revenge' subplot from the first movie, without the drama).

But there was more, this was a movie when everyone was on holiday. Whether it was the composer's lacklustre efforts or ever Ms Dunst's hairdresser who seemed unable to ensure even the vaguest continuity in the look and colour of her hair. There is the comedy (I couldn't tell if it was intended or not) French accent of the maitre d' - one is transported back to inspector Clouseau and his impenetrable enquires about Sir Charles Lytton's swimming pool.

There was only one redeeming feature. The Daily Bugle editor J Jonah Jameson of J K Simmons was a breath of fresh air in his every scene (especially when, during the climactic battle, a little girl extorted money from him for her camera). But in a film this long it was not enough, not nearly enough. The only way we were able to survive was by whispering snide comments to each other (for which there was a gift of an opportunity every couple of seconds). Normally I would scorn such behaviour but everyone else was doing it too. Indeed, towards the end someone called out "Oh for god's sake". We felt his pain. People walked out.

Finn and I have our benchmarks for bad super-hero movies. And there have been plenty (Batman and Robin, Daredevil and the Fantastic Four). But bad as they were, they were not this long and at least the action was exciting. Even in the Fantastic Four (especially disappointing for me as I love the comic so much) there was the odd moment approaching suspense or where you half gave a damn. Not so here. Here there was nothing. It might be half fun to watch on a DVD with a lot to drink and shout at the TV for two and a half hours, but otherwise..... There should be consequences for people who produce a movie like this, they should not be given any proper money to play with until they've gone away and made a successful art house film.

To those who tune in for higher-brow news, I apologise, I needed to get that off my chest. Normal service will resume with the next post. In the meantime don't, whatever you do, feel tempted to see Spider-Man 3.

Friday 11 May 2007

Festival 2005, part II

It's been a little while, and far longer than you'd imagine it would take to copy and paste some old posts from one forum to another (albeit with minor revisions). However, for any who may have been waiting, here is week two of the 2005 Edinburgh International Festival (please note, this link currently appears to be broken), first posted over at the Naim forum. Once again, revisions are italicised.

Sunday 21st saw the first real turkey. The Tchiakovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio came. Despite having played rather well in Swan Lake all week (or at least the performance I saw) they were terrible. It wasn’t just that the tones were poor and muddy, or that the horn section were woefully inadequate, no, they managed the hard task of making the Eroica dull, very dull. Of course, there are some who can get away with taking the symphony slowy: Furtwangler in Vienna in 1944 or Jochum in his magnificent LSO reading. But a conductor takes it this slowly at their peril because if they can't deliver that magic, the result can be desperate. In the second half, a suite from War and Piece was better (thought the waltz didn’t really sound like a waltz) and in moments of the 1812 overture they displayed some polish (in what was clearly something of party piece for the orchestra). Sadly it’s not a very good piece of music.

Tuesday saw Sir Charles Mackerras’s second concert (again with the SCO and Trost). The second half was Mozart’s unfinished Zaide, which was interesting, though very definitely not the composer’s best work. Since it features melodrama (spoken text interspersed with music), we got one of Mozart’s inspirations, Ariadne auf Naxos (by Benda) in the first half, which was excellent (but then I always like to see something new).

Wednesday, and the Rotterdam Philharmonic came with Blomstedt. I saw him last year with a Leipzig orchestra and was disappointed. This year he played Tchiak 4 (which was very good) and a rather less good sinfonia concertante (which he didn’t play nearly lyrically enough for Mozart).

Thursday, and we had Scottish Opera and John Adams’ controversial Death of Klinghoffer. It’s good to see them doing something, and doing it so well, given they’ve virtually gone under over the last two years, they’ve got virtually nothing programmed over the next year as it is. Anyway, the work was very powerful, and fascinating, and, to be honest, I really can’t understand why it upsets people so much, it’s not as though it condones terrorism. It was very well staged with members of the chorus being ‘kidnapped' from the auditorium during the hijack. The music is typical Adams, but good and highly atmospheric. The heavily electrified score circles round in an appropriately claustrophobic manner. The diction was a little poor, but the libretto was good (what could be heard). I’d be interested now to see Nixon in China (or his new opera Dr Atomic, about the Manhattan project). I am told this is coming to ENO for the 2008 season. Good though that will be, it would have been really fine to hear the premier which was in San Francisco conducted, of course, by one Donald Runnicles.

Friday saw the return of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra (sadly absent from last year’s festival). One shouldn’t be fooled by the label of ‘youth orchestra’, these guys are amazing. Established by Abbado in the 80s as both a follow-on for pupils of his EU youth orchestra and also as a means of fostering cooperation between east and west Europe. This combination of a large number of countries the players are drawn from and their age being greater than most youth orchestras (up to 26), makes for an outstanding band. Interestingly, what struck me about them two years ago was the quality of the brass playing (I think I’ve rarely heard it so good), this time the brass were less good but the strings were outstanding. Ingo Metzmacher gave us a Strauss tone poem (can’t recall which one - anyone thinking that in revising this I would look it up would be right, sadly I can't track down my programme and the the 2005 and 2006 archives have vanised from the EIF website), followed by songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, though the singer (Goerne) wasn’t sufficiently audible, the orchestral playing was wonderful (particularly in the two songs that use the same music as the middle movements of the second symphony). The second half was a good reading of Bruckner 6. Sadly the work suffers from the same problem as much of his writing, namely it gets a little repetitive at times, it is also one of his many works in which he neglected to save the best for last. That said, if you get the chance, go and see this lot. I don't really agree with the penultimate sentence anymore. In many ways, Bruckner's 6th is now a firm favourite. But in the intervening time I have discovered both Eugen Jochum's wonderful recording with the Dresden Staatskapelle and had a performance last year from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under who else but Runnicles. Given that, I don't know whether I would prefer the reading now or whether I would think that Metzmacher didn't quite pull it off. What a shame I'll never know.

Saturday and it was Beethoven: the Mass in C as well as Christ on the Mount of Olives (Beethoven’s only oratorio). I don’t know either work at all but Robertson and the RSNO played them wonderfully, and for once the festival chorus were pretty good (they often suffer from having far too few men). If anyone knows of good recordings of each of these, please let me know. Actually, I've recently, well, in the Christmas sales, picked up a recording from Giulini and the Philharmonia to which I've not got round to listening. At least, I thought that was who was conducting. It was on a 3 disc Brilliant Classics set in which Giulini led both the Missa Solemnis and the Mass in c and the only name on the box was Giulni's. However, unwrapping it now to check, I notice that the price label was obscuring another another name on the back corner: Helmuth Rilling, of whom I've never heard. I must give it a listen, but the discovery that Giulini is not involved in Christ on the Mount of Olives is something of a disappointment. So those recommendations may still be required.

Week 3, which was dominated by a 5 day residence by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under Nott, to follow. Also worth noting, I've only commented on the main evening concerts and not the morning concerts in the Queen's Hall (which feature mainly chamber music), but I may get round to them in due course. I did, though in rather less detail, and they will be posted here in due course.

Thursday 3 May 2007

Paul Lewis plays Beethoven

Sadly the last concert for a while, in this repertoire at least. It has been a joy that the Queen's Hall have got Mr Lewis for eight concerts over the last two seasons, in which he has taken us on a journey through Beethoven's piano sonatas, and what concerts they have been. Or, I should more properly say, what concerts the last 5 have been. I discovered this series quite by accident, an accident that will teach me to look more closely at the concert schedules in the future, with the final performance in last year's series. Two things stuck out: a thrillingly fresh reading of the op.79, long a favourite of mine, and an immensely powerful Hammerklavier (not a work I'm usually a fan of). And therein lies Lewis's great talent. My preference in pianists is for the more delicate the better, hence my admiration for the late, great, Wilhelm Kempff. Too often, pianists like to play loud, then thump, and I cannot stand it. One of the things that impresses me about Lewis is that he plays very loud indeed sometimes, but with absolutely clarity and without thumping. And with tremendous passion. The Appassionata last year was a revelation. With his shaggy hair, as he swayed and grunted at the piano he seemed almost like Beethoven himself. He does grunt a lot, in that regard he takes after his teacher Brendel, and this will put some off. In truth, it usually does me, but in his case it seems only to underscore the passion of his playing.

And so, we come to the final programme. Predictably, perhaps, he gave us the op.109, 110 and 111. But we got off to a slightly disappointing start. I think it was something in the way he played it, but in the op.109 the piano sounded almost broken. Certainly the clarity of his playing wasn't quite there, there was something muddled, something deeply un-Lewislike. Either way, I struggled to enjoy it. But I was largely alone. However it is the first time I have felt let down by Lewis in concert.

The op.110 fares better. There is, as there was in the 109, plenty of the classic Lewis light/heavy contrast. A wonderful balance between delicacy and power. The piano sounded better too (which leads me to suspect it was something deliberate in his playing). The wonderfully soft final bars are almost overwhelmed by the heaviness of his breathing - but this does nothing to lessen their impact (indeed, one could argue it is enhanced). However, I don't think the out and out fire of his finest readings was really there. In an odd way it seemed reminiscent of his studio recordings, which always lead me to question why his label don't simply release the broadcasts made for Radio 3 (which capture him far closer to his best).

The op.111 was really more like it: Lewis played the opening movement with real a passion that took me right back to his playing in the Appassionata. He was fierce, grunting as loudly as I've ever heard him. And yet there was humour too, when called for. Certainly, he made it appear as the finest work of the three. It was blighted only by the persistent feedback from somebody's hearing aide. He got a warm reception, and I'm sure we would have had an encore if it had been appropriate.

He has been giving these concerts elsewhere, including at London's Wigmore Hall, and those performances will be broadcast on Radio 3 later this year (as last season's were). I cannot wait. Let us hope he returns to Edinburgh, and particularly the wonderfully intimate Queen's Hall, in the near future. If he visits a venue near you, make the effort to hear him.

The performances have been accompanied by a recording project. Two volumes have been issued, the first containing the op.31 sonatas and a second containing three discs which include the op.79, the Hammerklavier and many more. These are worth having (and the recorded sound is exceptional). But, as stated above, the lack the fire and passion he has in the concert hall.

Wednesday 2 May 2007

Jansons and the Concertgebouw play Sibelius 2

Over at the naim forum, I've been writing a long series of posts summing up my collection of Sibelius on disc and I thought I would post the latest instalment here, not least as it has the flimsiest of connections to the festival (namely that Mariss Jansons is giving the very symphony, albeit with his other, Bavarian, orchestra here in the last week of the festival).

This is Jansons' second recording of the work (the first, on EMI, features the Oslo Philharmonic, an orchestra with whom Jansons had a long, and judging from the few recordings I own, by the end, rather special relationship, and was coupled with the 3rd, 5th and a couple of smaller works). His success on the Concertgebouw's own label has thus far been a little more muted. His Heldenleben was fine enough, though didn't altogether push my buttons; the disc of Beethoven and Brahms' second symphonies was an odd pairing, the latter of which didn't quite come off. The Mahler 6, though fine enough, paled next to his recent effort for LSO Live.

So, how does this fare? The first movement opens with a middling tempo (perhaps a little on the slow side). The timings, for what it may be worth, are virtually identical to his earlier reading. A bigger difference is to be found in the dynamic range, where the contrasts between loud and quiet are not nearly so severe. However, the orchestra plays splendidly and Jansons creates some wonderful textures. Unfortunately, he does slightly spoil some of the big climaxes by rushing them a little. In the second movement the playing is again excellent, especially from the winds. What is particularly impressive is the clarity with which he brings out the various musical lines. A rather jumpy reading, in a good way, and although not brisk, a long way from Bernstein too. The movement's climax is very nice. The third movement opens briskly. The playing is full of excitement, and it is a credit to the players that they do not slip. He produces some extreme, but well judged, contrasts in tempo and magnificently builds and transitions into the finale, where the brass playing is especially fine. There is also a nice sweep to his reading. Unfortunately it does drag slightly in places. But he does build a wonderful momentum for the final few minutes to a magnificent close. Throughout the reading there is a wonderfully dark feeling and a great clarity. He produces only a moderate chill, rather than the frozen temperatures of Bernstein. The recording is very well balanced and Jansons finds some great textures (and ones that feel new, or at any rate, fresh, to me). Indeed, this typifies one of the reasons the RCO label has always excited me, namely this orchestra's delicious and unique texture. The only problem is, as with his Mahler, I can't help feeling that conductor and orchestra are not yet quite so perfectly in sync with each other as he was with the Oslo Philharmonic. Doubtless that will come in time.

At the time of the disc's release I held off after CD Review suggested the fact the performances it is taken from were spread out had led to inconsistency. Listening, I don't think this is fair. A bigger flaw: for a single, mid-priced disc, one work that lasts just three quarters of an hour is poor value.