Sunday 30 November 2008

Jansons and the Bavarians PLAY (this time Mozart and Bruckner)

Where's Runnicles has twice before sung the praises of this superb combination: after their visit to the 2007 Edinburgh festival and when they gave a concert this time last year, the first of a four year partnership, at the Festival Hall. On both occasions they have proved one of the more impressive ensembles we have heard. Saturday's programme of Mozart and Bruckner was not, therefore, one we had any intention of missing. The Festival Hall were very good about replacing the ticket I had left in Edinburgh (though I wish the programme seller hadn't questioned my Scottish money).

The first half consisted of Mozart's Linz symphony (no.36). Certainly the orchestra played beautifully, but there did seem to be a little something lacking. In fairness to Jansons, I had last heard the piece four weeks and a day earlier when Charles Mackerras and the SCO played it in Glasgow (in a thrilling performance, the review of which is slightly overdue). Jansons did not find the same bounce and excitement, and I rather missed it.

The second half was another matter entirely: Bruckner's fourth symphony. Now, I don't know the work well enough to specify which version it was that we were hearing and Julian Haylock's programme note is vague to say the least.

The rarely heard first version of the Fourth Symphony appeared in 1874. Four years later Bruckner made a wholesale revision, completely replacing the third and fourth movements. He then overhauled the finale again between 1880 and 1881 and this is the version we hear played in this concert, which also incorporates further revisions Bruckner made between 1886 and 1888.

So, was it the 1881 version we heard or some version dating from 1888 (which was actually the first published version, logically if it's the 1881 version it can't have revisions dating from the end of that decade)? It would be nice to be told.

Not that it really matters of course. In my view, the choice of editions is generally a less important question than that of how wonderfully they are played. And, in this case, the answer is with incredible beauty. This might be expected: the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1949 by Eugen Jochum, one of the finest Brucknerians there has ever been. As a result, the orchestra ought to have the composer in their blood to some degree.

Even refurbished, the Festival Hall acoustic sometimes sounds a little odd. Not, though, in this work. The sound was simply stunning, often breathtakingly so. From the opening, and flawlessly played, horn solo, beautifully supported by the stings, on to the thrilling finale which was in no danger of being upstaged by the scherzo as happened the last time I heard the work live (from Deneve and the RSNO), the orchestra produced one glorious sound after another. Time and again the score exposed one section or other of the orchestra, and each time that section shone incandescently, whether it was the superbly rapid dexterity of the flutes in the third movement, the driving bass rhythms at the start of the finale or that brass sound (not showy, in the wonderful manner of the Chicago orchestra, but more subtly beautiful).

This was true 'cathedrals of sound' Bruckner. One awesome climax or subtle texture was created after another, then the pieces put back together in a slightly different way. Never did this Bruckner feel repetitive in the way the worst can. There was also an extremely impressive dynamic range, the quality and delicacy of their quiet playing is about as fine as it gets.

It is true that this was a fairly slow reading, running to around seventy minutes, and it didn't perhaps have the focus or drive of some. But when you can have such sounds it hardly matters, and I was more than content to let it wash over me. If only we had an orchestra like this in the UK (with the right conductors the Philharmonia and the BBC Scottish come close). They return at the end of March for a programme that includes Beethoven's Eroica, some Ravel and Strauss's four last songs (unfortunately I will not make that, in part because I will be hearing Runnicles himself do the Strauss with Christine Brewer just a few months earlier).

Saturday 22 November 2008

Boris Godunov…or the Curse of English National Opera reaches the Music Director

Once upon a time ENO excelled at this kind of ensemble show. The Zambello/Edwards Khovanschina remains one of my personal operatic greats. Sadly, this new production of Boris Godunov fails almost completely to live up to that pedigree, and a large measure of responsibility for that failure must, I regret to say, be placed at the door of Edward Gardner, who up to now has been about the only saving grace the company currently possesses.

First a word or two about the production. I have known Tim Albery productions to be stunningly good (his Scottish Opera Ring Cycle) and stunningly awful (his Scottish Opera Don Giovanni). This production falls someway between the two. It isn’t that the earthy floor, the wooden walls, and the moveable platforms with the odd piece of furniture (more evidence of ENO budget worries?) for the indoor scenes are totally unsuitable, but they don’t set the stage alight either. However, it is with the organisation of the masses of Russians in their different groups, and the individual soloists that the problems start. The ENO Chorus used, in this kind of piece, to give you a sense that you were watching a distinctive collection of individuals. This it fails to do. Moreover, one of the strengths of the ENO Khovanschina was the brilliant delineation of the different groups (Old Believers, peasants, Streltsy). There are fewer groups here, but the differentiation is much less successful – particularly disappointing is the Boyers council. More worrying was the quality of their musical performance. Diction was very muddy, and at times they didn’t all quite seem to be together themselves or with the orchestra.

Most of the supporting soloists are passable, but not particularly gripping, with only Robert Murray’s Simpleton really standing out. And what of Boris. The press has not been kind to Peter Rose’s performance and for once I am in accord with them. It isn’t that his vocal performance is weak per se, but I never believed a word he was singing. Given that the drama of the piece hinges on one’s believing that Boris is wracked with guilt over the murder of an innocent child this presents something of a problem. A contributory factor here is undoubtedly Rose’s acting, which is dreadful, and where Albery’s direction has either been non-existent or failed to take root. I can’t remember the last time I saw such an unconvincing death scene.

But the biggest problem this production suffers from is the lack of drive from the pit – the last thing I would have expected to result from an orchestra under Gardner’s direction. It really was as if he had gone to sleep on curtain up and woken up two and a quarter hours later. The music plods, tension fails to build, characters are singing about blood and guilt and murder but there is rarely any sense of this in the playing – no change in mood, no urgency. As time went on I wanted to scream. But of course one cannot do this even in a theatre as poorly filled as the Coliseum was tonight, so I clenched my fists, bit my lip and wished that I had Mrs Pollard’s knack of being able to fall asleep at the drop of the hat – it was certainly the reaction the show deserved.

Last night when drafting this review I was quite angry, but in the cold light of day it all just seems rather sad. This kind of show used to be ENO’s bread and butter – this failure is a good yard stick of the mess the company is currently in. And apart from Gardner in other repertoire there have been few signs that there is anybody in the company with the vision necessary to get them out.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Monday Night Film Club - Quantum of Solace

I'll put my cards on the table at the outset. I'm a Bond fan, a big fan. Sometimes scarily so: when someone in the pub the other evening remarked that they liked the one with the 2CV car chase, I was not only able to instantly tell them it was For Your Eyes Only, but also, when they remarked it had been some time ago, remember the release date was 1981. I used to be able to reel off all the films in order, and name the years of their release. I can still do it more or less.

So a new Bond is a big thing for me. Our friend Caroline is currently in Japan, touring with The Starlets (Japanese readers should try to catch them), so, leaderless, I proposed some slightly less intellectual material than normal (coupled with an extra half hour of adverts and less comfortable seats).

Daniel Craig's James Bond, as exemplified by Casino Royale, can rightly claim to be one of the best: gritty and perhaps more true to the original books. It may not have been the most action-packed film, but it made up for that in tension and the free-running opening sequence felt very fresh. Paul Haggis's writing, which made Due South so special, and from which there were influences in Casino Royale (e.g. the scene where Bond puts Vesper's fingers in his mouth), was very special.

A hard act to follow. Initial signs were good, and it was suggested that producers Wilson and Broccoli wanted director Martin Campbell to return. Unfortunately he didn't and instead we got Marc Foster. A glance through his resume gives instant cause for concern: he doesn't seem to have directed any action and Bond is not the place for an action novice. In my view the worst Bond film to date is Die Another Day. There are several reasons for this: I don't buy Bond being captured and held prisoner for so long, Madonna's song is dire, Bond wouldn't use an electric razor and the less said about that stupid invisible car the better; the list is endless. However, two criticism stand out and are more substantial. In the first place, there was far too much homage to earlier films and, secondly, the action sequences were poor to say the least. Worse, much worse, a lot were faked. The fact that Bond could get insane stuntmen to fight on the back of aeroplanes or ski off cliffs and that you knew they were really doing it is what made the action quite so great. Once things were faked, and in that film quite badly faked, the magic was gone.

It isn't quite so much that the stunts are fake in Quantum of Solace, though two of them appear obviously so in parts: the fight towards the start where Bond and his target plunge through a glass roof shows signs of poor computer generated graphics, as do parts of the plane chase. More normally the problem is more critical. Most of the action is shot so close in, with no wide shots, that it makes it very hard to follow things: everything is a mess of confusion, much like it was in Spider-Man 3 (which we critiqued at length). Even allowing for that they are poor cop and poorly constructed. (Incidentally, this is the point where those who want no spoilers at all should probably stop reading, though they are kept to a minimum.) Towards the end of the opening car chase, which has nothing of the inventiveness of the remote control BMW of Tomorrow Never Dies, the Aston Martin DB5 of Goldfinger or the Lotus of The Spy Who Loved Me, nor even the charm of that 2CV, Bond picks up an assault rifle and shoots the pursing car off the road. All one can think is why on earth didn't he do that two minutes ago. Similarly, in a boat chase that isn't a patch on Moonraker or the acrobatics of the Tomorrow Never Dies opening sequence, Bond does something that causes one of the pursuing boats to flip; again, we hardly see what. The plane chase is similarly confused. The villains also seem to display an aim even more reminiscent of the A-Team's ability to spray more bullets than an army without hitting anything than is usually the case.

Then there is the looking back. My grandfather was a Methodist minister. He was still preaching into his 90s, and on his 90th birthday gave a sermon on Lot's wife who turns to a pillar of salt when she looks back. I don't think his point was never to look back, just that one shouldn't get lost looking back. Die Another Day did. Quantum of Solace does too. There is the girl who is left on the hotel bed smothered in oil (Goldfinger - where girls are suffocated by being covered in gold paint, though that wouldn't actually work), two people diving from a plane with only one parachute (the stunning opening sequence of Moonraker, which was both more exciting and seemed more real), a male and female spy walking through the desert in their evening wear (The Spy Who Loved Me), a girl out for revenge for the killing of her parents (For Your Eyes Only). Perhaps the most galling is the theme of Bond gone rogue and out for revenge. This was, basically the plot of the last Dalton film, Licence to Kill. It was the grittier Bond that most of the media credits Casino Royale with inventing. And it was better executed, much, much better executed. The scenes between Bond and M were loaded with emotion, particularly when he hit him in order to escape. In contrast, it was never at all clear whether M wanted Bond running around or not. Indeed, the similarities didn't end there, since both films involved elaborate lairs in Latin America. Again, though, Quantum of Solace offered nothing in the finale to match the climactic chase involving four tanker trucks in Licence to Kill.

Of course, all these worries could have been solved by a great script. What a shame we didn't have one. This is the more puzzling given Paul Haggis's involvement, a writer for whom I have a lot of respect. And yet, there were plenty of one liners that simply didn't work, things often seemed clunky and too often I felt I was being lectured; surely not the point of a James Bond film. The villain's plot is, frankly pretty pathetic, and it's quite difficult to see how controlling the water supply in some fairly minor countries is going to be worth the enormous expense they have gone to. Only at one point, when Dominic Greene met with a dictator, having brought only a single bodyguard, did I feel things were right: he showed no regard for his own safety, so assured was any retribution if he was harmed. It is the more frustrating because at any number of times it feels like it's getting going: a superb meeting in a seedy bar between Bond and Felix Leiter, or the hilarious means by which Bond locates the local CIA office. But then everything splutters to a halt again.

The stupidity of the villains seemed to go far beyond the normal caricature - how on earth was a performance (an absolutely dire performance, by all appearances) of Tosca the best place from which to plot to take over the world. Then, when Bond announced over their intercom that he was watching, they all stood up so he could identify them with his absurdly overused Sony phone gadget. Now, I know Sony have been placing their products in Bond for decades, but this is getting stupidly blatant. Whatever happened to clever gadgets?

I suppose the intent was that questions of plot took second place to Bond's blind quest for vengeance. But the film didn't satisfy in this regard either. Bond's actions, while often wreckless and sometimes veering into incompetence, didn't really seem either blind or often as vengeful as they were meant to. That's not to say it was entirely without merit. Craig's performance is often strong, and Dench's M has her moments, but elsewhere the cast is frankly uninspiring. Generally, what talent there is is tragically misapplied through the poor script and direction, something especially true of Wright's under- and misused Felix Leiter. It is also clear that the departure of production designer Peter Lamont has hurt the series. The set that houses what passes for the big finale has some potential, but it is blown up so soon after being introduced that it seems an awful waste. Where is Ken Adam's volcano when you need it? Oh, and the title song is pretty dire too.

At the end of the film, Wilson and Broccoli repeat the age old promise "James Bond will Return". Right now, I honestly couldn't care less whether he does or not.