Wednesday 30 December 2009

Some random guesswork about the 2010 Edinburgh International Festival programme

The other day brought a glossy flyer through the door from the Edinburgh International Festival. My brother has already noted the rather tenuous grasp of history that it displays, so I'll confine myself to talking about the titbits of programming information it gives away, which are:

No, there's not a problem with your screen (do not adjust your television set). The flyer basically tells us nothing. McMaster used to give us some detail of the artists he had booked up and which weeks they were coming (though he usually held some surprises back). However, ever since Mills took over in 2007 this practice has ended. The change is unhelpful. For example, my parents usually come up for a week or so and it would be useful for them to have some idea of what's on a little way out.

Contrast this with the Aldeburgh festival who recently sent round some advance details of their festival next June. We know, for example, that Leon Fleisher is going to be there (though, unhelpfully, not which week, so I still can't book my holiday).

What we do know about EIF 2010, however, is that there is a new world and pacific rim focus. Therefore, one can have a little fun making some guesses that probably bear as much relation to fact as the horoscope does to my life (I'm still waiting for the romantic text message I was promised the other week).

My first prediction, and I'm really pretty confident about this, is Gustavo Dudamel. He's an up and coming conductor hailing from Venezuela. He heads both the LA Philharmonic and also the Gothenburg Symphony (though I doubt he'll be coming with the latter). Now, Mills has had him twice before, added to which his third orchestra, the Venezuelan Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, are very much flavour of the month. I don't gamble, but I'd be tempted. From this point on it gets rather more speculative.

Of course, a new world theme would allow one of the great US orchestras to fit in nicely (though they're all a bit strapped for cash just now, and are doubtless extremely pricey at the best of times). I'd love to see either the New York, Chicago, Cleveland or Atlanta orchestras, not to mention the fact one Donald Runnicles has a strong association with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (he is their principal guest conductor) - they could also bring their magnificent chorus, an ensemble so fine the Berlin Philharmonic imported them recently.

I mentioned in passing in another piece that we don't see enough women conductors. However, if the theme is America, that's the perfect excuse to bring the superb Marin Alsop to Edinburgh. And what better work to bring her for than Bernstein's wonderful and unique Mass. She's recently recorded it with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, so ideally we might get them, however I've also heard her do it to great effect with the London Symphony Orchestra too. Failing that, she's worked with the RSNO before and I'm sure they'd do a great job together on this. Mills has form on Bernstein: after all, he opened his first festival with Candide. Mass would open the 2010 festival in style.

And what of those other dazzling artists hailing from the Americas: there is Daniel Barenboim, there is Leon Fleisher, coming to Aldeburgh this summer, and many more besides? The American theme would be the perfect excuse to give Rachel Barton Pine her International Festival debut - she's blown me away on her previous visits to Edinburgh and is disappointingly absent from British concert halls this season. Mills could do a lot worse than rectify this.

Going further afield, I suspect a visit from an Australian Orchestra is pretty unlikely as the cost is doubtless crazy. That said, it does seem we may be getting Opera Australia with Bliss, a new opera by Brett Dean and Amanda Holden (if this Australian media report is anything to go by). The budget for importing opera is thin enough as it is, and with Scottish Opera in such a state that they've only made one contribution in Mills' entire tenure, one does have to question if this is really the best call.

One thing I am willing to bet is that this will not be the year the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester returns (Mills has clearly not heard these talented individuals play - I can think of no other good reason why he keeps turning them down - the more so as they must be quite a cost effective booking in these straightened times). I don't know to what extent this sort of thing is considered by Mills, and doubtless this is unscientific, but everyone I mention the ensemble to, many of them longstanding supporters of the festival, is baffled by their continued absence. The tone of the flyer also leads me to worry that once again we may see a year without any of the really great European orchestras: wither Berlin, Vienna, Dresden, the Concertgebouw or the Bavarians? Will ever see Sakari Oramo and his magnificent Finns again?

It is, however, entirely possible that we may see either Pierre-Laurent Aimard or the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. It's not immediately clear how either would fit into the stated theme, but Where's Runnicles spotted Mills at an Aldeburgh Festival concert given by them back in June.

My big worry is that there is one thing I don't see fitting neatly into the theme: Mahler. Mills anyway doesn't much seem to care for the composer (a pity as he's a reliably big draw and in Donald Runnicles we have one of the finest Mahler conductors going). 2010 is the composer's 150th birthday, so given last year we had no shortage of anniversaries, by rights it should be a bumper year. Even better, it is the centenary of the premiere of Mahler's epic eighth symphony, the Symphony of a Thousand (and the only one I've never seen live). How about this for an opening or closing concert: Runnicles, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Festival Chorus (augmented) to perform the eighth (Christine Brewer, that superb American soprano, could solo, perhaps mezzo Joyce DiDonato too). To make it even more perfect programming, one has only to note that the Festival Chorus was formed specifically to do this very work and that Donald Runnicles sang in the boys choir on that occasion. To say it has to be done is bit of an understatement. It's also worth noting that Jansons and the Concertgebouw are touring Mahler's third symphony this summer. Another golden opportunity. Will the festival seize it?

Actually, there is one thing we do know for certain, thanks to this interview with Charles Mackerras - he will be doing Idomeneo (with, my sources indicate, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus). Mackerras and the SCO have a glorious history of concert opera at the festival, though if this is to be their last, I wish they'd chosen a greater Mozart opera.

Anyone else who cares to hazard a guess is welcome to do so via the comments below (should the festival themselves wish to shed some light, we're happy to publish any nuggets they might wish to publicise).

The Habit of Art

My brother has already reviewed The Habit of Art, and while we don't always see eye to eye (and some critics have raved), I find myself coming to broadly similar conclusions.

My overwhelming reaction is one of disappointment. This isn't a dreadful play, or an unbearable night in the theatre, far from it, but when compared to Alan Bennett's greatest works, such as A Question of Attribution, Forty Years On, The Madness of King George III and, of course, the recent and superb blockbuster The History Boys, it stacks up poorly.

We are presented with a rehearsal room at the National Theatre as the cast run through Caliban's Day, a play musing on a fictitious 1973 meeting between the poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. Many of the problems are summed up by the writer himself in this London Review of Books piece:

When I took it up again I found the problems to do with too much information had not gone away, but it occurred to me that the business of conveying the facts could be largely solved if a frame were put round the play by setting it in a rehearsal room. Queries about the text and any objections to it could then be put in the mouths of the actors who (along with the audience) could have their questions answered in the course of the rehearsal.

I can't help but feeling that the play we are seeing is not the play Bennett wanted to write, but rather what he could, supported by elaborate scaffolding. This is the more apparent in the long stretches of the Britten Auden meeting that go uninterrupted. Now, I'm a great fan of metafiction when done well, but for it to work it really needs to more than support for material that cannot stand alone.

Whether or not you find it funny depends very much on your sense of humour. Auden may well have had dirty pants strewn around a squalid apartment and he may have peed in the sink, but I don't find that kind of toilet humour especially funny. If you do, you may well enjoy the piece much more. There are some very good jokes (such as when the stage manager takes an actor to task for wanting to be reading in character, so he doesn't have to learn his lines, and says he'd have done it as Oedipus but for the character's blindness). Sadly, such gems are too few and far between. This is no Noises Off.

Other laughs come, for example, from the terrible anthropomorphic poetry as the chair, bed and shaving mirror discuss their relationship with Auden. This may be amusing, but it's also unsatisfying: the writer clearly isn't dreadful, as the rest of the play within the play shows, and it isn't intended to amuse the audience within the play, so why is it there? The line about "f-ing elves", in relation to Tolkien's work is extremely funny too, but Bennett has stolen this old joke from Hugo Dyson without attribution, especially bad form given the myriad devices within the play that could have provided it.

The actor playing Auden and Britten's biographer Humphrey Carpenter also does an amusing drag act at the start of act two. The trouble is that it feels hopelessly out of place - would an actor, close to the start of the run, really turn up and suggest something so out of character be added; true he has made valid complaints about the character in act one, but the routine bears no relation to them. More likely, Bennett just likes this sort of thing. And there's nothing wrong with that per se, the trouble is that while it works for The History Boys to act out scenes from Brief Encounter, here it just doesn't fit.

Anyone expecting a great deal of insight into either Britten or Auden is likely to be disappointed. There are flashes, especially when Auden discusses what he dislikes about his earlier poetry, or when Britten talks about needing to write something before he knows what to write. But too soon we are back to, for example, Auden forgetting what he's just said (an interesting quirk of his short term memory that seems suddenly and massively more pronounced in the second act).

Given Britten has gone to Auden for help with his latest opera, and there is much discussion of libretti, it becomes increasingly puzzling that no mention is made of their operatic (and largest) collaboration Paul Bunyan. The more so as Britten went on to revise it not long after the play is set.

Compared with other imagined meetings, such as Copenhagen, there is a sense that there is more to be explored than has been explored. Of course, that comparison is somewhat unfair, in that much greater and weightier issues were under consideration there, but it does not invalidate the point.

We do get some good insight into the position of the writer and their marginalisation as the play moves towards performance. Others, though, have done this better: take, for example, Adaptation (written by Charlie Kaufmann) or the wonderful line by Aaron Sorkin in The West Wing where Josh says "I feel like a writer on a movie set." as he stands around with nothing to do (it may be almost thrown away, but it speaks volumes).

The structural problems are especially apparent at the end when, as Bennett serves up three of them, it is clear he wasn't sure how best to do it. The result is unsatisfactory. The rent boy's closing monologue about the forgotten contributors to art feels very familiar (I have a sneaking suspicion that it was echoed in The History Boys somewhere, but don't have my text to hand to check).

I've not really mentioned the actors. I can't, and don't, fault them: all involved handle superbly what is on the page. Frances de la Tour has won particular praise for her portrayal of the stage manager and, true, she's very watchable and highly amusing as she cossets fragile actors and subs in for those lost to the Chekhov double bill. The trouble is that, in function, she resembles no stage manager I've ever come across. True, I've only worked backstage on amateur productions, but one of our party who stage manages professionally was also pretty unimpressed.

There are a lot worse ways to spend an evening at the theatre, but I don't think the National Theatre should kid themselves that they have another money spinner of the order of The History Boys on their hands.

Monday 28 December 2009

Ears Today - 2009-12-26

I know I retired Ears Today, my short-lived daily roundup of what I've been listening to, a few months back, however I listened to such a fine crop of discs on boxing day that an encore seemed in order.

I began with this:


I've been exploring Sinopoli's Verdi recordings recently, and while I don't know Attila at all, I found this live recording from 1980 to be amongst the most impressive of the bunch. Yes, it being live (in Vienna) the applause can sometimes be a little intrusive, but there is such an energy and drama to Sinopoli's reading that such flaws are easily forgiven. The cast seem pretty solid too.

Verdi was followed by Haydn:


I'm a big fan of Jansons and the Baravian Radio Symphony Orchestra as a team and so the news that they've launched their own label is very exciting (they did previously issue some releases on Sony but these weren't always available in the UK). This first disc includes wonderfully played and joyful readings of Haydn's 88th Symphony and his Harmoniemesse. It's also available as a DVD (other releases include a Bruckner seventh, which is very fine, and a Mahler seventh I haven't listened to yet).

I've had the most recent box of DG's Bernstein Collector's Edition on my shelf for some time now, but hadn't got round to giving it a spin:


This is the second Beethoven release in the series and might be described as the odds and ends, but don't let that put you off. At the time of that first set (which was a cycle of the symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic), I was slightly disappointed his Ode to Freedom performance of the ninth was not included. The reason is now apparent. However, it isn't that performance I listened to. Instead I gave something even rarer a spin. Bernstein's 1976 Amnesty International concert with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra has remained out of the catalogue for a bafflingly long period of time. One of the key reasons I bought the box, aside from being a Bernstein fan, was to get hold of it. Now that I have done, my puzzlement is only increased. The programme is all Beethoven and atmosphere is suitably electric, right from the opening bars of the Leonora III overture. This is followed by, in truth, a slightly weightier performance of the fourth concerto with Claudio Arrau than would ideally be my preference, but a very satisfying one nonetheless. On the second disc, however, the concert concludes with a reading of the fifth symphony that must rank amongst the most thrilling on record. This concert alone probably justifies acquiring the set.

It feels something of a shame, therefore, that this second disc is padded out with a reading of the seventh with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It comes from August 1990 and the Tanglewood Festival, less than two months before the conductor's death, and lacks the energy that this exuberant work requires.

Annoyingly, none of the releases are on Spotify so I can provide no links.

Thursday 24 December 2009

Don Carlos in English - Revelatory Conducting from Richard Farnes

I'm huge fan of Don Carlos, for me it ranks among the very greatest operas: there is superb music, a moving plot and some stunning political drama (there can be few finer scenes on stage than the confrontation between the King and the Grand Inquisitor). I love the Opera In English series too, since it means I can enjoy works without having to read along with the libretto. Indeed, often I find it's their translated versions that stick in my head, I'm always a little disappointed when surtitles don't read "That [illegitimate child] Figaro, I'll make him pay". You might think, therefore, that Chandos's latest issue would therefore be an unqualified recommendation. I wish that it was, but sadly it's not quite that simple.

chan 3162.jpg

The first problem jumps out and smacks you in the face immediately: they have forgotten to record Act I and we're straight in at Act II. Okay, I realise I'm being rather unfair: they've picked the 1883 version which only has four acts, but the fact of the matter is that however you colour it this is a mistake. Mike Ashman may argue in his liner note that it's "the only version of the work which [Verdi] himself supervised completely in person", but that doesn't mean it stands up dramatically. Act I crucially sets the scene, it is where we see Carlos and Elizabeth meet and fall in love, for goodness sake, not to mention learning what's come between them; losing it cripples the Opera. Now, I can see why you might be tempted to do so in a touring production (and this recording is based on Opera North's recent tour), after all, dropping a scene saves you both sets and doubtless overtime. However, surely the time could have been found to add it back in for the recording. It is, in my personal view, difficult to understate how debilitating a flaw this choice is. It's a tremendous pity since in other respects the set has a lot going for it.

(Note - for this review I'm going to use the Act numbering as per the five Act version, since to me that makes more sense. Just subtract one to get the numbers used in the set.)

The next, much more positive, and also strikingly obvious thing is just how fine the orchestral playing on show here is. Would, frankly, that Opera North made regular trips to Edinburgh if this is their standard. Richard Farnes draws a wonderfully rich sound from the his forces. Pacing is on the slow side but he never loses momentum. Often the set feels close to a real drama, not simply a studio recording, for example in the Auto de Fe scene. But at the same time it isn't quite there: the mob in Act IV doesn't have quite the terrifying power it can (and while John Tomlinson, as the Inquisitor, does have the booming power to quell them, he is not so chilling as, say, Halfvarson). However, moments where the drama feels lacking, such as the Act III confrontation between Carlos, Eboli and Rodrigo, are few and far between.

The singing, though pretty good, is not quite in the same league as the playing. Of course, as someone once said to me, Don Carlos is easy so long as you have the six best singers in the world. There is some truth this, and to some extent my criticisms fall into hair-splitting territory; I am holding the cast up against some of the greatest singers and performers in the world who have delivered revelatory readings, and that's a very hard yardstick. Certainly there are no glaring weak links or painful moments (more than can be said of Abbado's French set where nobody seemed to have bothered with a language coach).

Julian Gavin, in the title role, has a nice and sweet voice, but diction could do to be sharper. Alastair Miles gives an underpowered performance as his father (Philip II); indeed, in some respects I'd rather have had John Tomlinson here than as the Inquisitor. In Act III, for example, Miles doesn't seem sufficiently shocked or injured by Carlos's treason and his rewarding of Rodrigo for saving him seems almost matter of fact. Similarly, in Act IV I want more age, gravitas and despair as he sleeps alone in the Escurial. As I felt when he sang the role at Covent Garden, Tomlinson is too boomy for my taste - there can be something altogether subtler and more sinister to the character's power. There's never really any doubt where the power lies when the two clash, and at times it sounds like they might as well be in a pub debating the finer points of philosophy. It is only in the second part of the scene when the Inquisitor turns against Rodrigo that Tomlinson is truly menacing and only here does Miles find a nice desperation in his pleading. The pace is possibly on the fast side, a rare instance of Farnes not maximising the drama, and again Tomlinson's boom saps his departing "Maybe" of some of its potential power.

Rodrigo (William Dazeley) may not challenge Simon Keenlyside in the acting stakes, but he turns in a solid and cleanly voiced performance and finds a glorious weight in the climax of the blood brotherhood duet (which is wonderfully offset by the superb choral singing of the monks, or rather the Opera North chorus) as well as giving a powerfully emotional reading of the death scene. However, elsewhere in the work he doesn't always have quite the nobility and gravity, this is especially true when he disarms Carlos in Act III (though one does keenly feel Carlos's pain at the betrayal).

Janice Watson is nice enough as Elisabeth, though she too feels a little light. However, at her best she is utterly captivating and her moving performance in Act V is one of the highlights of the set, underscored by Farnes' sensitive accompaniment. At other times this electricity is missing: when she cries for justice in Act IV it's a rather tame affair - there should be furious and righteous indignation.

Eboli is, in my view, one of the trickiest parts to cast in opera: you ideally want a very light and agile voice during the veil song (e.g. Fedora Barbieri on Giulini's live account, who is breathtakingly so), but then, on the other hand, you want a real emotional weight to O don fatale. Jane Dutton acquits herself pretty well. True, she doesn't match Barbieri in Act II, but neither does she feel hopelessly miscast here, as too often happens. She is good in Act IV, though O don fatale doesn't have the weight I would like - I want to be trembling and I'm not.

Rounding off the main cast, Clive Bayley as the monk (or voice of Carlos V) isn't quite booming or haunting enough in Act II, though this may be down to balance or an artistic decision since he is absolutely stunning Act V, adding to the searing drama of Farnes' reading in the final moments.

The voices are not helped by the balance, where they could have done to be a little more prominent; as it is, it's hard to find a volume where they are clear but which doesn't have the neighbours applying for an ASBO during the heavier orchestral climaxes. There are also one or two slightly odd moments where there are some very extremely balanced sounds - this can be especially disconcerting on headphones and is probably not the best way to get off-stage or etherial effects on a recording (the off-stage brass in the Auto de Fe scene is a striking example).

Throughout, the chorus under Timothy Burke are excellent. I particularly appreciate having their words in English during the veil song.

And what of the English translation? Italian opera in English can sometimes come off a little like Gilbert and Sullivan, and not in a good way. For the most part, this is avoided, save where the queen demands justice in Act IV. As always, I feel the pros of hearing it in my native tongue outweigh the cons.

Again and again, especially in the larger climaxes, a fabulous orchestral sound does much to erase any doubts - I hadn't realised how fine a band Opera North have. There is the wonderful menace to the music that introduces the Grand Inquisitor and then that gloriously moving string sound, almost shimmering, at the start of the prison scene. It makes me wish Farnes had been in the pit for Royal Opera's recent revival, certainly he's now high on my list of conductors to hear doing Verdi live (or anything else, for that matter).

If you don't own a recording of Don Carlos and are looking for one, I can't really recommend this as the best starting point. Instead I would point you towards Giulini (either live, though the mono sound is not ideal, there are some unfortunate, though less severe, cuts and the Covent Garden audience is quite noisy, or in the studio) or Pappano in French (especially worth having for Halfvarson's Inquisitor), both have good playing, are complete enough and have strong conductors. If you want really completely you need Matheson on Opera Rara, but that set has other flaws and is probably for completists only. Sad to say, the perfect Don Carlos has not yet been recorded. However, if like me you have several Don Carloses and are always happy to pick up another, then this is worth having. It's nice to have it in English, and you owe it to yourself to hear Farnes' reading of the score. It's also very reasonably priced. Cuts and hair-splitting aside, it is a satisfying listen and I defy you to find a conductor who injects more passion into the final minutes. In the field of Don Carlos recordings you can do very much worse. I won't be digging it out every week, but it and my CD player certainly won't be strangers either.

Thursday 17 December 2009

Ticciati's Queen's Hall debut - Karen Cargill sings Berlioz with the SCO

I don't always agree with every decision made by the management of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (but now's not the time to talk about Cl@six again), but credit where it's due. When the appointment of Robin Ticciati as principal conductor was announced a little over a year ago, after a whirlwind romance on a highland tour, one couldn't help a niggle doubt that this appointment of a relatively unknown and very young conductor was rushed and whether it really was the right move. Any such doubts, however, were quickly erased in tonight's concert and, it has to be said, that this appointment is probably the best decision the management have taken during the four and a half years I've lived here.

During Berlioz's Overture, The Flight into Egypt (taken from L'Enfance du Christ, which Conrad Wilson patronisingly anglicised in his programme note) which opened the second half, there was a moment where just a quartet of flutes, oboe and cor anglais played and it felt like we were in a chamber recital. This, of course, is helped the Queen's Hall, which is an ideal chamber venue. Even when the strings came back in, Ticciati kept that chamber feel with the whole orchestra. It was beautiful. It is also important, because when you put a full orchestra in the hall it can easily overwhelm. Ticciati, though, seems to understand what makes the place special better than anyone I've heard there, he knows that less is more, that you do not need to be loud to fill it, and that with restraint come the most brilliant details, and while at many times in the evening there were big climaxes, they were never too big. He gave a clue to this when, before the finale piece, he turned to address the audience (thankfully very briefly, and informing us this wasn't the sort of thing he normally did) to thank Edinburgh for his reception and to say how nice it was to meet the real SCO audience up close and intimately. It bodes very well indeed.

He gave us a varied programme. The evening opened with Faure's Pelleas et Melisande. While this was a fairly subdued choice with which to start, they placed it beautiful and the orchestra's string sound was as fine as I've heard it. Similarly, Alison Mitchell's superb flute solos in the third movement were exemplary.

They were then joined by the evening's headline attraction: Karen Cargill. I'm a big fan, and have heard hear many times, especially with Runnicles. She was here to sing Berlioz's Le Mort de Cleopatre and did not disappoint, her voice wonderfully rich, yet also light when called for. Ticciati has plenty of experience in the opera house, and this was evident in the flair for the dramatic he showed with the score. He also balanced the orchestra well beneath her. Highlights included the wonderful atmosphere to the meditation, the superb trombone playing and the wonderfully played repeating bass motif leading up to the finale, driving things along, a deep and rich sound that belied the visual evidence that only two players were on stage. It was a cracking piece very well played and an excellent trail, if one were needed, for when they perform L'Enfance du Christ in full in February.

They finished up with Haydn's 101st symphony, The Clock, long a favourite of mine, and with period horns and trumpets on duty. After a nice slow opening, they settled into a suitably joyful reading of the first movement, one through which it was all I could do to sit still(ish), for all the right reasons. In the interval, a friend I spoke to mentioned she doesn't like the clock, as I listened to the name-giving second movement, I wondered if bassoonists are crestfallen when they learn they are to play it, but if they were, their playing didn't show it. Peter Whelan's solos were particularly fine and had a lovely tone to them. Jochum, possible my favourite interpreter of Haydn's symphonies, has a wonderful way of making them turn on the menuet. Ticciati didn't quite do this, but he certainly made something special of it, filling it with drama and holding his pauses to excellent effect. They rounded it off with a satisfying finale.

All in all, it was an evening of fine music. My first concert of the year was Paul Lewis playing some superb Mozart with the SCO in the Queen's Hall, it's nicely fitting that the same ensemble and hall have finished my year so well too.

However, if Ticciati or the orchestra are reading all this fulsome praise, don't let it go to your heads: Where's Runnicles expects lots more of the same. With luck this should be the start of a beautiful relationship.

There's Runnicles - In Berlin, and he's brought the Atlanta Symphony Chorus

Of course, it's hardly news these days that Donald Runnicles is in Berlin; he is, after all, now in charge of Deutsche Oper. However, it isn't every day that this happens:

Last time he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic it was for a performance of Berlioz's Requiem in May 2008, sadly just before the advent of the digital concert hall, though it did receive a Radio 3 broadcast (so one wonders if there's scope for the audio only version being made available via the digital concert hall). And that's not all: now, as then, Runnicles is bringing the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus with him (whom he well knows from his tenure as principal guest conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra). One does wonder whether importing a choir like this gets up the hackles of the local choruses. Indeed, when the Concertgebouw popped over to London last weekend, they didn't even bring their own choir. Then again, the Atlanta are a pretty special bunch and I look forward to hearing them.

This time they're doing Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem. I haven't heard much Brahms from Runnicles (though his Edinburgh festival concert this year included the double concerto) so it will be interesting to see how it turns out - will he find the incredible drama of Furtwangler or, more likely, something fresh and not quite what I'm used to.

Either way, point your browser here for a report after Sunday's concert. But, of course, you don't have to wait to see what I have to say - you can watch and listen for yourself. I already have a subscription to the digital concert hall, and at €149 a year it is quite pricey - though that gives you thirty or so live concerts, and access to them at any time via the archive (and last year's archive too), it will become more cost effective with each passing year (unless the price increases dramatically or they remove the older material). That said, while it seems cost effective, you do actually need to ensure you view them and it can be easy not to get round to it - there are always too many things to listen to! The other option is a one off €9.90 fee to either stream the concert live or wait a few days and pay the same to watch it as many times as you like within 48 hours. If you're going to pay for the one off, I'd recommend the latter since it offers better value for money. There's also a 30 day pass for €39 euros.

Still, it goes to show how great an endeavour the digital concert hall is. After all, it's not like I can just pop over to Berlin to catch the maestro at work. (Actually, that isn't quite true - I'm doing precisely that in April when he conducts Der Ring, I hope to catch the Berlin Philharmonic live under Bělohlávek with Aimard while I'm there. However, I certainly can't do it every day.) I hope the digital concert hall catches on - how great would it be if I could catch Runnicles' Atlanta appearances in the same way, or see Jansons at home with the Bavarians, or enjoy those LSO performance that don't easily fit in with my schedule.......

Of course, if you're actually in Berlin, you can try for tickets to the concerts.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Ticciati Debuts as Principal Conductor - The SCO plays Henze, Mahler and Brahms

It's been a long wait (Robin Ticciati's appointment was announced in October of last year), but finally I've had a chance to hear the my local orchestra with their new principal conductor. The signs are very promising indeed.

True, he's already appeared with them, and been well received, on their recent highland tours, but this weekend saw his first appearances in Edinburgh and Glasgow. As luck would have it, they clashed with Mariss Jansons' visit to the Barbican with the Concertgebouw, something I booked a while ago and which I wasn't going to miss even for this. It was a shame, as the programme was most interesting.

Fortunately, Radio 3 were kind enough to step in and tape it for me. In order to justify the outlay, they also broadcast the concert and you can hear it here (available until Monday 21st December). Actually, in truth, and in case someone from the Daily Mail is reading this and thinking that BBC resources have been abused to tape a concert solely for my benefit, I should categorically state that I don't have any reason to suspect my circumstances were a consideration here, I don't even know the BBC people who make these decisions - it's just a nice coincidence.

They began with Henze's Chamber Symphony. This is one of the good signs of Ticciati's tenure: he seems intent on mixing in new music. I don't know how well sold the Usher Hall was (let me know via the comments if you were there - Update: see Iain's comment below). However, normally the merest hint of new music is enough to decimate an Edinburgh audience. With luck, his star power can help redress this. I don't know the piece at all, but thoroughly enjoyed it and intend to get to know it better. It was pretty accessible as modern music goes and had some beautiful lyrical string and wind tones, moving and changing in a nicely organic way and well complimented by the brass. There was also some fine solo work. The evolution into the work's more chaotic and dramatic climax was particularly interesting and compelling, not least the fine brass work. What was immediately apparent was that Ticciati is able to draw a very good sound from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and playing of a high standard. It was, in other words, immediately clear why they hired him and that this was good thing.

Henze was followed by Mahler and a selection of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. For these he was joined by Magdalena Kožená. She has, of course, appeared with the orchestra before (in their 2005 Clemenza di Tito under Mackerras). However, it seems more likely that her presence was down to the influence of her husband, Ticciati's mentor, Simon Rattle (who was in the audience). Kožená has an impressive voice with a Lovely tone and delivered a well characterised performance, dramatic and without too much vibrato. It is a versatile voice too, at times serious, at times playful. Beneath her, Ticciati provided a beautifully coloured orchestral sound. Obviously this was radio, so one can't say for certain as things can be mucked around with, but he seemed to be supporting her voice well (one would expect no less from a conductor who has worked a lot in opera). Certainly, he never drowned her out. This was a fairly light take on Mahler, perhaps inevitably with a chamber orchestra, but more than that it was light interpretively: there was no Bernstein here. But then with all the voice was doing, I'm not sure you'd want much more going on below.

The second half was occupied by Brahms second symphony. Brahms with a chamber orchestra is nothing new (the composer himself did it) and the SCO are no strangers to it either, having recorded the symphonies very well for Telarc under Mackerras. As ever, it's risky for a conductor to take the orchestra into his territory as it invites comparison (Ticciati is doing so several times this season, which will make for interesting listening - true, Mackerras has done so much that it's hard to avoid this, but I'm thinking specifically of things he's done with the SCO). One inevitably gets a stripped down sound, and while Mackerras makes up for this by convincing with his thrilling excitement, Ticciati's take was more leisurely. There was not the yearning here that sometimes pervades Brahms. And yet there was something compelling and listenable instead. His reading did become more alive as it progressed, perhaps he was wary of letting go too much too soon. Certainly it felt a very fresh interpretation, there was something very beguiling about his way with it and in general he built the tension well. The closing chord to first moment was particularly sublime. By contrast, the opening of the second movement lacked the darkness and depth of the best readings. At the same time there was a lovely delicacy and lightness of touch on display. The third movement had a pleasant opening and was altogether nice enough. The trouble is, I'm not at all sure that that's what's required and, as it progressed, it didn't quite seem to have the required drama and energy. It was altogether too tame. There was, however, no shortage of drama and excitement to the finale. Indeed, to such an extent that he got me conducting along at home, always a good sign! In short, it was an interesting reading, with lots of fresh ideas knocking around. Yes, it didn't totally convince and doesn't stand with the very best interpretations, but it left me keen to see how his Brahms develops.

More crucially, it left me very much looking forward to his future concerts. Coming up on Thursday is a mix of Faure, Karen Cargill singing Brahms and Haydn's Clock symphony (one of my absolute favourites). I can hardly wait. If you're free, you should contact the Queen's Hall and see if there are tickets left.

Monday 14 December 2009

What about Runnicles (et al)?

I don't want to make a habit of critiquing poor journalism in the Grauniad. However, once again I find I have little choice. I suppose the solution would be for them to stop writing ill-thought-out articles.

The latest example cropped up in The Observer yesterday and described how young conductors are sweeping the concert halls of Britain (well, taking them over rather than being forced to take up janitorial posts due to a lack of suitable work).

Now, before I lay into them too much, it is the case that unlike the last piece, which suggested conductors were pointless, there is at least a kernel of truth in this one: there are lot of prominent young conductors working in the UK just now who, by all accounts, are very talented (I say by all accounts since I haven't actually had the chance to hear a lot of them). It certainly isn't my intention to question the abilities of any of these individuals or merits of their appointments; indeed, I've championed some of them, such as James Lowe, unmentioned in the article, and I'm sorry to have missed Ticciati's debut on Saturday (and am very much looking forward to encountering him on Thursday). No, I just object to poor journalism.

The problem is more that it confirms to two worrying trend in media today - namely identifying a story and then proceeding to write it, regardless of any evidence to the contrary, and also writing about process rather than substance. I myself recently came up against this when I spoke to a hack from the Scotsman who had a clear story he wanted to tell, and, despite my efforts to enlighten him, went ahead and wrote it anyway, misquoting me in the process.

It is much the same here:

British orchestras are increasingly defying tradition by hiring a fresh generation of brilliant young maestros.

Absolutely, there's no tradition of that in Britain. I mean it's not like Simon Rattle (one of the most famous conductors in the world) was made principal conductor of the CBSO at the age of 25 in 1980. Except, of course, that he was (indeed, he became assistant conductor at the Bournemouth Symphony at 19 and the RLPO at 22). A quick look at the history shows that the CBSO has form here: they hired Adrian Boult all the way back in 1924 when he too was just 25 (and he took charge of the BBC Symphony before he was 30). In 1988 Andrew Litton (then 29) was appointed by the Bournemouth Symphony, in 1990 Franz Welser-Most became principal conductor of the LPO (age 30) and Mark Elder was just 32 when he was made music director at ENO in 1979. I could go on, and on, and on, in demonstrating that young conductors taking charge of orchestras is hardly new or uncommon. There may be a few more just now, but not having done any detailed statistical analysis (as, I'm sure, the Grauniad hasn't either) I don't want to make any kind of definite statement. (If anyone out there can be bothered to do the analysis, I'd be happy to publish it here - or link to your site.)

There are some particularly amusing flaws as the article continues:

The emergence of the musical Generation X has occurred with startling speed: only five years ago, pundits regularly bemoaned the fact that, aside from increasingly middle-aged maestros, such as Rattle, now working in Berlin, the Russian Valery Gergiev at the LSO, and the Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen, now at the Philharmonia, there were no new talents emerging.

Quite right too. Let's go back a few paragraphs to note this:

At 33, the Israeli Ilan Volkov – principal guest conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – remains the youngest person to hold the enviable position of conductor with a BBC orchestra.

I mean, where was Volkov five years ago? Nowhere, that's where. Except, of course, you and I both know that he was, in point of fact, holding an even more senior post, that of chief conductor, with the very same orchestra (and doing a great job too). He was appointed to the post as young as any of those discussed in the article, though not so young as Boult was when those stuffy BBC folk hired him back in the 20s.

But the most baffling assertion is yet to come:

This missing generation of conductors in their 40s and 50s suggests that the young blood currently are likely to continue their uninterrupted, headlong rush towards the great musical appointments.

Yes (leaving aside the hideous sentence construction), I can hardly think of any conductors in this age bracket, and certainly none regularly working in the UK. Actually, as you may have guessed I can; indeed, when I should have been going to sleep last night, I kept having to get out of bed and make a note as I'd remembered another! Take, for example, the top opera job in the UK, music director at Covent Garden, held by Antonio Pappano (49, for a few more days); or what about the LSO, where internationally renowned and insanely busy Valery Gergiev (56) rules the roost; both Gergiev and Esa-Pekka Salonen (51), now in charge of the Philharmonia, are mentioned in the article in the preceding paragraph, but clearly the authors didn't bother to look up their ages; then there's the BBCNOW with Thierry Fischer (52); Gianandrea Noseda (45) is doing great things at the BBC Philharmonic, and is on a great many iPods as their cycle of Beethoven symphonies was made available as a free download by the BBC a few years back; I've not heard of him before, but Lothar Koenigs (44) has just taken at Welsh National Opera; over at Opera North it's much the same story - Richard Farnes (45) is music director; and how could they forget the recently appointed 55 year-old chief conductor of BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, a man who was still in his 30s when he became music director of San Francisco Opera, none other than Donald Runnicles. There, that's seven people in the 40s and 50s bracket in charge of major UK orchestras and opera companies. Exactly the same, in fact, as there are young conductors featured in the Grauniad's piece (okay, they count nine, but they're using creative accounting by taking in people in principal guest roles and the like which they don't seem to realise are not at all the same as chief conductor or music directorships - if one added in those, I'm certain the 40s to 50s would be in the majority).

And if one casts the net a little wider, there are even more in this age group: Franz Welser-Most (49), who is now in charge of the prestigious Cleveland Orchestra and about to take the helm of Vienna State Opera; Sakari Oramo (44), the phenomenal chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, whose great work as music director of the CBSO over the last decade the media seem intent on airbrushing out; Osmo Vänskä (56), who a decade ago was at the BBC Scottish and will be conducting a Sibelius symphony cycle with the LPO in the new year; Christian Thielemann (50), currently with the Munich Philharmonic, a major player at Bayreuth and due to take over at Dresden in a few years time; Simone Young (48), currently in charge of Hamburg State Opera (whom she brought to this year's Edinburgh festival) and the Philharmonic; Alan Gilbert (42), who's just taken over at the NY Philharmonic and who'll be bringing them to London soon; Christian Zacharias (59), the superbly talented pianist and artistic director of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra (who regularly conducts the SCO and will do so again in April when he presents Schubert's great C major symphony); Marin Alsop (53), currently music director of the Baltimore Symphony, formerly at the Bournemouth Symphony and who will play a big part in the South Bank Centre's forthcoming Bernstein celebration; Robert Spano (48), music director of the Altanta Symphony Orchestra; Paul Daniel (51), the previous music director of ENO; Joseph Swensen (49), the previous SCO principal conductor and current conductor emeritus; Carlo Rizzi (49), until recently at Welsh National Opera; lastly (only because I don't want to keep on), there's that former wunderkind Simon Rattle (54), now languishing in the relative obscurity of the music directorship of the Berlin Philharmonic (amusingly, only a few days ago the Grauniad did a piece on the London residence they have planned for 2011). Astonishingly, they've even missed Charles Hazelwood (43). Now, I hate to lump him in with the rest since I don't care for him at all, but he's such a darling of the media it's surprising they've not noticed him. Missing generation? This is one generation that's missing only if one doesn't bother to look for them! I just fail to see how you can arrive at that conclusion unless you've either been lobotomised, or simply couldn't be bothered to do any research. I await with interest their article on the invasion of the middle-aged.

Actually, the more interesting and story is why there aren't more women conductors about. However, while I think there should be, that's not the subject under discussion here. Perhaps the middle-aged are ignored because they fall awkwardly between the wunderkind status that so excites the press and the grandee status enjoyed by those over sixty such as Jansons, Barenboim, Abbado and Mackerras.

I think I've identified the problem though: look at the article's authors: Amelia Hill (social affairs correspondent) and Vanessa Thorpe (media editor). Nobody from the arts desk? What genius: let's write a piece about conductors and orchestras and not consult our specialist journalists whom we pay to write about those things! It beggars belief. Can we please have articles about the arts written, or at least fact-checked, by people who actually know about the arts. I mean, we don't get Rob Cowan to write a piece on Manchester United.

More importantly, can we have articles that are actually about the arts themselves, rather than process stories. Of course, process stories are easier to write, and, on the face of it, require less expertise (at least, to write badly) but that doesn't excuse it. I don't much care how old a conductor is; I have my favourites in just about every age bracket going. What I care about is a good musical performance, so why not let's have big long articles about that. And the print media wonder why they're tumbling into irrelevance.

In the meantime, I present messrs Hill and Thorp with:

The Philippa Ibbotson Award for a Bafflingly Terrible Piece of Arts Journalism that Reads Like it was Written by Someone for whom the Arts are a Foreign Country and which was Inexplicably Unhindered by the Editorial Process

I myself am spending today celebrating the middle-aged conductor by listening to recordings by only those currently aged 40-60 (though I realise this may not fit everyone's definition since, as Chamber's puts it, middle-age is "between youth and old age, variously reckoned to suit the reckoner").

Sunday 13 December 2009

A Note from Our Resident American Historian

I was troubled by the contents of a publicity flyer received this week from the Edinburgh International Festival. The document in question announces that the 2010 Festival is to celebrate the arrival of European explorers in the New World 300 years ago.

Where's Runnicles is curious to know which European explorers the EIF are referring to. The EIF office perhaps needs to be reminded that Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492 (over 500 years ago); Icelandic explorers are believed to have established settlements, possibly in Newfoundland, over 1000 years ago; and the first British colony was established in the 1580s (over 400 years ago).

Since the theme of the Festival is New Worlds and it appears likely to feature Opera Australia, I wondered if the flyer might be referring to European arrival there. This is not my area of specialism, but a quick examination of an Australian Government website suggests that the first Europeans arrived there over 400 years ago.

We will be happy to publish clarification, and should a similar problem arise in the future I would be delighted to direct the International Festival to some of my extremely knowledgeable former colleagues at the University of Edinburgh.

Editor's note: Dr A F Pollard is a lecturer in American History at the University of Lincoln, prior to that at Newcastle and Glasgow Universities. He gained his Ph.D in American History at the University of Edinburgh in 2006. The book based on his thesis, The Literary Quest for an American National Character is available from Amazon.

A Venerable Rosenkavalier

Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier is one of my favourite operas, but the critics have not been especially kind to the current revival (apparently the sixth) of John Schlesinger's venerable production. Fortunately, to these eyes and ears at least, there is still much to appreciate.

Contrary to received critical opinion I did not find the production tired, and I am fairly certain that I have seen it before. It is refreshing, given the current return to popularity of director's opera, to see a production (like The Enchanted Pig) where you do not constantly find yourself asking such questions as, why is the text being ignored, and what is that wall doing there. The sets are sumptuous and looked fresher than critical commentary had led me to expect. If there is a problem with this revival it is that the direction of the performers has been sloppy. The haunting of Ochs doesn't quite have the necessary precision and drama, and Octavian (Sophie Koch) had a few to many occasions when she seemed to remember a move two seconds too late. Yet there are beautifully crafted moments which very much retain their power. The Marschallin gazing at the abandoned bed and slowly picking up Octavian's flowers at the end of Act 1, and Octavian staring rather hopelessly after the Marschallin at the end of Act 3.

More serious problems in fact arise from some of the performances. First the good. Both Sophie Koch as Octavian and Lucy Crowe as Sophie give superb performances. So much so that for the first time that I can remember I was really powerfully moved by their scenes together in Act 2. Sadly the other two principals do not perform in the same league. I previously saw Peter Rose (Ochs) as Boris Godunov in ENO's recent, pretty unsuccessful production. He did not impress me there, and his performance here is no improvement. His voice lacks the rich deep basso quality that the best Ochs should have, and he isn't a good enough actor to bring the part off. He should dominate the stage when he's on it, and Rose was not able to achieve this. Soile Isokoski's Marschallin is considerably more puzzling. In fact it is one of those rare cases where the singing is superb, but the performance remains insufficient. Isokoski comes across as rather cold. She seems to play the part at the same level for most of the piece, so that until the end she left me unmoved. It is my contention that the listener's heart should break for the Marschallin in Act 1 as she imagines being pointed out as the 'old princess' and muses on the passage of time. Isokoski, despite singing beautifully, did not move me.

Finally, there is Kirill Petrenko's conducting, again a bit of a mixed bag. He favours faster tempi, perhaps most notably in the Act 1 prelude which was thrilling and erotic. Elsewhere this was more of a problem. Much of the text should sound like varied conversation. This requires careful handling and too often Petrenko's tempo seemed to be faster than was comfortable for the singer, and not altogether in harmony with the requirements of the text.

All that said, this opera always has one final trump card. Indeed, I think the last fifteen minutes of Rosenkavalier are possibly the greatest last fifteen minutes of any opera – though I'm sure statement will invite a flood of challenges, not least from my esteemed brother. The extraordinary trio, the wry commentary of Faninal and the Marshallin, the reprise of the Rose music and the fleeting appearance of Mohammed. It is the work of two geniuses, and this Rosenkavalier succeeded in sweeping me away with it. As such, despite some minor thoughts, it is a production well worth another look.

Jansons and the Concertgebouw PLAY Mahler

The timing was a nice co-incidence. After all, as the Berlin Philharmonic pointed out today on their Twitter feed:

On this day in 1895: @BerlinPhil premiered Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 with the composer conducting

The Concertgebouw, have, of course, had a long association with the music of Mahler, dating back to Mengelberg's tenure. Their wonderfully rich sound always seems to have a special affinity with Mahler. They hold, too, the distinction of having made my favourite recording of the second symphony: a rather crackly 1951 performance which, despite having Klemperer at the helm, fits onto a single disc and benefits from the presence of the incomparable Kathleen Ferrier. Jansons has also enjoyed great success with Mahler, most notably in his superb recordings of the sixth symphony with the LSO and the first with the Oslo Philharmonic. The stage, then, was set for something special as they teamed up to play the Resurrection in the second of their two appearances at the Barbican this weekend. They did not disappoint.

Throughout the orchestra played astonishingly well, the wonderfully throaty cello sound at the work's opening giving a taste of what was to come. They were as at home at extreme pianissimo as during the mighty climaxes. At the helm Jansons brought as much drama and passion as one could want. Generally he opted for a middling pace, the performance running to around eighty-five minutes (ninety if you count the pause).

He never let the second movement get too sunny, and the darker moments were very dark indeed. But then to complement that was the aplomb with which the violins and violas strummed their instruments like lutes. The third movement, sharing its tune with St Anthony's Sermon to the Fish in Des Knaben Wunderhorn was fierce and dramatic with the central climax gloriously realised.

Jansons raised the game still further during the Urlicht, playing through the last three movements without a gap, as he placed his offstage forces to maximum effect: brass (probably in the foyer) balancing beautifully against Bernarda Fink, who sang nicely, though opted for something warmer than the chilly Ferrier that is my ideal.

They had, though, saved the best for last. Offstage trumpets, horns and percussion seemed to be coming from as many as four different places (that or there was a lot of running around going on). Both from the wings, sometimes with the doors open, sometimes not; some trumpets and horns seemed placed further back, presumably in the foyer. Not only did this sound simply glorious, but their playing was faultless and their timing judged to perfection. Donald Runnicles himself, the grandmaster of offstage instrumental placement, could do not better, and in this regard my praise gets no higher than that.

There was a solid performance from soprano Ricarda Merbeth, though her voice was perhaps a little thin at the top, and the London Symphony Chorus sang superbly and from memory. Jansons kept them seated right up until the very end, so as to maximise the effect of the finale, which really did seem sufficient to raise the dead.

It was ninety minutes of glorious sound. From winds to strings, brass to percussion, there was not the ghost of a weak link amongst the ensemble. Special mention, though, to Bart Claessens for his superb and exposed solo work on trombone. They were rapturously received and the standing ovation we gave them was well deserved.

True, it would have been nice to have been in a hall with a real organ one can physically feel, but such was the impact of the forces they had mustered that that hardly mattered much. More seriously, one questions whether there was really a need for a five minute break between the first two movements and whether this was really the best point to bring on the soloists. According to Wikipedia, Mahler's score does indeed call for this (I haven't got my copy to hand but will check it tomorrow). However, to my mind it lets out the drama and tension that have been built up.

They've recently performed this in Amsterdam, so one must hope they had the sense to tape it for later release on the orchestra's record label. In the meantime, we can content ourselves with his very fine earlier recording with the Oslo Philharmonic on Chandos.

Let us hope the Concertgebouw return to London soon under the baton of their music director. Better yet, let us hope the Edinburgh International Festival has the sense to book them to do some more Mahler in his anniversary year.

In the meantime, a performance this fine deserves an award. Actually, it's an award I should have first given some time back to someone else (so in breaking with tradition it will be named after them rather than the inaugural recipient). I present to Mariss Jansons:

The Donald Runnicles Award for Outstanding Placement of Offstage Instruments to Produce a Magical Effect, Unreproducible on even the Very Best Hi-Fi Equipment.

Update - 2009-12-14

It seems likely we will see a lot more of them. Barry Millington's review in the standard ends with this wonderful nugget:

Immediately after the concert Jansons signed a contract on behalf of the orchestra as one of the five new International Associates of the Barbican.

Jansons and the Concertgebouw PLAY Smetana, Martinů and Brahms

It's just nine months since the Concertgebouw last payed a visit to the Barbican. On that occasion they were under the baton of Bernard Haitink; this time round their music director Mariss Jansons was in charge.

For my money, this was excellent news. While Haitink is always technically excellent, I often find I want a more emotive reading. This is not a problem I have with Jansons who has impressed me greatly each time I have heard him with the Bavarians (indeed, that impressive first encounter is the reason PLAY is capitalised in the title - intended to convey just what a show they'd put on, it's become something a tradition when I review him).

Actually, while he's impressed greatly with the Bavarians, and also with the Oslo Philharmonic in many of the recordings he made during his 21 year tenure there, on discs with the Concertgebouw I've often felt he didn't have quite the same chemistry. However, any such doubts were instantly erased last night.

They began with an energetic and exciting reading of the overture from Smetana's The Bartered Bride. It almost seemed calculated to show off just what the ensemble could do, something especially true in the many passages played ultra quietly.

The stage was then rearranged for Martinů's Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani. As a work, it was new to me and didn't entirely sweep me away. It seemed to lack quite the communication and rivalry between the two ensembles of the best such concerti (such as Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste). Still, they played superbly and it grew on me as it progressed. The melodrama of the slow movement was particularly well served by the orchestra's uniquely rich sound and the finale had plenty of thrills. In the final chord, Jansons judged the balance between the strings and the piano to tantalising perfection. Perhaps I just need to make better acquaintance with the piece (feel free to recommend a recording in the comments below). It's also nice to have both these composers present in a programme: I don't seem to come across them in the concert hall nearly as often as I'd like.

Lack of familiarity was not a problem after the interval with Brahms' fourth symphony (indeed, it is only a few months since I last heard it live, on that occasion from Metzmacher). Jansons provided a stunning reading, one which had no lack of drama. He built and held the tension well, and when he did release it, still held enough to ensure the work didn't go flat. The beauty of the slow movement was stunning, from the opening horn call to the fabulous pizzicato playing. Both the exiting third movement and the finale were given similarly fine treatments.

Throughout the evening, Jansons's conducting was full of passion and energy. Sometimes he used big gestures, leaping up and down on the podium more than once. Yet he also knew when to hold back and let the orchestra get on with things, this was especially true in the Brahms, where he often stopped using the baton.

And the orchestra? Well, I complained last time about the silliness of Gramophone calling them the world's greatest, but that was mainly because I think such titles are silly. There can be no doubt that the Concertgebouw are among the finest ensembles in the world. I haven't, as I often do, singled out any players for special praise. This was also the case last time, and now, as then, it's not because there was no special playing. Far from it; rather, their playing is just of such a uniformly high standard it is difficult to single anyone out.

I was not alone and they were rapturously received and gave us two encores. Both were superbly played, the second was Dvořák's Slavonic Dance No.8 in G minor from the op.46 set (I think the first may have been No.2 in E minor from the same opus but I'm not certain). Please correct me below if you can.

Better is, hopefully, in store this afternoon with Mahler's second symphony, sensibly in a programme all of its own. The London Symphony Chorus are on duty for that one (though my only nagging concern is how they'll cope with the lack of an organ in the Barbican). I doubt there are tickets left, but if you're in London, I suggest you do everything legally possible to obtain one.

Saturday 12 December 2009

A glorious fairytale triumph: The Enchanted Pig at The Royal Opera House

My opera year started in Covent Garden's Lindbury Studio with something of a train wreck in the form of The Beggar's Opera. It is fitting, therefore, that it has ended there with an absolute tour de force.

How to describe it? From the moment you come to your seat there is a sense of wonder. The set glistens and gleams, the rotating floor sections are intricately marked out as calendars. Planets, dresses and roman columns all dangle from the ceiling.

This is a fairytale, and one clearly written and crafted by lovers of the genre. Indeed, The King, superbly sung by Jo Servi, and gloriously kitted out in his boxer's garb, has a superb number early on warning his daughters of various stereotypical hazards they should be on the lookout for while he is away: don't accept food from strangers who come to the door, elderly stooping men with long beards are on the make, and there's a nice bit about spindles and straw.

Needless to say, the King then hands over the to the room they mustn't enter and the inevitable ensues, leading to the youngest, Princess Flora, being married off to a pig (well, pig by day, man by night, cursed in the finest fairytale tradition). But things don't go entirely to plan and after a brief worry towards the end of the first act that there wouldn't be enough material to sustain two hours, such doubts were quickly dispelled and Flora must trek to the ends of the earth, and beyond, wearing down her iron shoes, in search of a happy ending while we will her on.

Sondheim is a strong influence, most keenly felt in the King's number and the duet between The North Wind and Mrs North Wind. And yet it never feels the like it's trying to ape that, there isn't the same fiendish cleverness to the rhymes but rather something more accessible instead. But don't think this means Alasdair Middleton's libretto isn't strong, far from it. He provides a poignant tale with plenty of laughs and deftly balances the trick of adding some lines for the grown-ups. Perhaps the only flaw is why on earth the King leaves the key behind in the first place. But one cannot really call that a flaw, since if he hadn't we'd have been robbed of a fabulous story.

The same is true musically. Bernstein often springs to mind as an influence, and a number of moments seeming to recall his Mass. Similarly there is Janacek too. Indeed, there is a repeated call on the trombone that feels like the opening fanfare to the glorious Sinfonietta and makes you wish for the next few notes. Jonathan Dove's score is particularly impressive for the small forces he uses to realise it: just trombone, bass, percussion, harp, cello and accordion. The richness and variety he finds with this unexpected sextet is wonderful, so too at times how much bigger an ensemble it feels than it can possibly be. Music director Tim Murray must take much credit for keeping a tight grip on things.

Too often, though, one leaves the opera offsetting fine musical performances against a silly staging. Not so here: the production design is simply glorious; never fussy or getting in the way, inventive and always supporting the story. Indeed, the basic set changes little, yet takes you to the end of the world, the moon, the sun and the milky way almost effortlessly with only minor alterations. Much of this is helped by excellent lighting design. This has been well coordinated with other aspects, an outstanding example being the magic string which has been appropriately dyed so that it glows red under UV lights. There is Moon, especially beautiful atop a lighthouse surrounded in dry ice, so too the five mirror balls spinning in different directions to form a galaxy of stars. And that's without mentioning the golf cart, or the way the wind blows Flora with her umbrella, the bed that doubles as a poison cabinet or the three hedges trimmed into the shapes of pigs' heads, the portrayal of the talking book of fate and the wonderfully chavy rival to Flora.

The great touches don't stop there, movement and staging is well considered too. There is the Pig's powerful entry, hammering at the doors from offstage, then singing his entry and coming in through the auditorium. There is Sun whirling round on the floor, lamp strapped to his head.

All credit then to the production team of director John Fulljames, designer Dick Bird, lighting designer Bruno Poet and movement director Philippe Giraudeau. This is particularly heartening as Fulljames is doing The Excursions of Mr Broucek with Scottish Opera in the new year (the production is coming from Opera North where it's already aired). If he brings the same sense of wonder, we are in for a real treat.

Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is the size of cast with which everything is accomplished: just eight superb singers double up, again and again, seamlessly changing from one role to another. Indeed, the flawlessly executed and extremely rapid costume changes (Pig to man and Flora's iron shoes particularly) are extremely impressive. Normally these are offstage, but look out for the arrival of the King of the East, you won't miss it, for a clue to how this is done. And these aren't just singers but real and true singing actors. Witness how Jo Servi effortlessly morphs into The North Wind, complete with norther accent (Beverly Klein providing a perfect match in his wife), or the fabulous facial expressions of Michelle Cornelius as Dot, the middle princess, and Day. There is Simon Wilding's powerful portrayal of the Pig and Tom Solomon's moving Moon. This is a cast devoid of any weak links. Diction, often a problem was not a issue and one never felt a need for surtitles (and just as well as they weren't there and would only have got in the way).

Not having encountered them before, I'm not sure how much this is the style of The Opera Group, who are responsible for this wonder, but to say the least I'm more than keen to make closer acquaintance with their work.

It was wonderful to see so many young faces in the audience at Covent Garden. Yes, you get the odd bit of chatter, though to be quite honest all the children were better behaved than some adults I've come across and in a show like this it doesn't matter.

If you find yourself looking at the billing and thinking that this is just for children, for the love of God fight that thought and buy a ticket if there are still any left, and from the handful of empty seats it seems possible there may be.

In short, we at Where's Runnicles have one overriding recommendation for the management of Covent Garden to take away from this: get this team to do something upstairs post haste.

Given I started this review with a reference to that dire Beggar's Opera, and that review ended with a negative award, it seems only fair to create a positive one here. So, without further ado, I present:

The Enchanted Pig Award for a Production Team who Inventively Transport the Audience to Another World and Should Never Be Out of Work Again.

And, because for this one just isn't enough:

The Opera Group Award for an Ensemble who Quickly and Effortlessly Glide Through Countless Costume Changes, Portraying Myriad Parts to Perfection.

It was, in short, an absolute triumph. The loud cheers that greeted the performers and creators at the end show that we were not alone in our appreciation.

Friday 11 December 2009

Brewer, Mackerras and the Philharmonia serve up some tasty Wagner chunks

Christine Brewer doesn't sing Wagner in the UK all that often, so when she does it's not to be missed. The last time I caught her, it was for a stunning Gotterdammerung at the 2007 Proms, conducted by the man himself (obviously I mean Runnicles, not Wagner, that would be impressive!).

When I spotted that she was joining the Philharmonia for an all Wagner programme, I knew it was not to be missed. Furthermore, with Charles Mackerras on the podium, there was a seemingly unbeatable combination.

Mackerras is not necessarily the first name that springs to mind when one thinks of Wagner, though he has racked up plenty of experience, from a Ring cycle at ENO to an impressive DVD of Meistersinger (not to mention the inaugural concert at the Sydney Opera House, where he conducted Wagner chunks with the legendary Birgit Nilsson, CD/DVD available).

The concert started with Mackerras and the Philharmonia alone in the Prelude and Venusberg Music from Tannhauser. This was quite simply superb, and in some ways the highlight of the evening, perhaps because it is a little more satisfying in isolation than the other chunks. The orchestra's rich and intricate playing was a joy to hear. Mackerras, never any slouch, didn't show his eighty-four years in the brisk tempi he chose and in the thrilling reading he delivered (those with £1 burning a hole in their pocket could do worse that pick up the recording they made at their 2006 QEH concert).

They were then joined on stage by Brewer for a tender and moving account the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. There was a nice flow and sense of drama and Brewer's power and ability to soar above the orchestra was simply stunning (though the fact that even she was at a few moments overwhelmed indicates why Wagner recessed the orchestra so much at Bayreuth).

The second half was entirely given over to Gotterdammerung and a selection of, for the most part, well chosen highlights. A lively account of Sigfriends Rheinfahrt set things off, marked especially by some stunningly boisterous brass playing, trombones particularly. The only sour notes were the rather too many fluffed notes from the off-stage Wagner tuba, who then had the ignominy of having to sneak back on stage to join the rest.

This was followed by The Death of Siegfried, a slightly odd choice and not one I've come across before in Wagner chunks. There's a good reason for this: Siegfried should be singing here. Had we had a Siegfried present that would have been all well and good, without him it felt even more glaringly incomplete than such exerts normally inherently do, especially in the tender moments where the songbird's motif returns. Much more sensible, surely, to have skipped it and, if the programme needed padding, to draw from elsewhere such as the Walkurenritt or the Waldweben.

They were on safer, well, chilling ground for the Trauermarsch and then the final scene. Brewer was perhaps on even finer form here, though it is true that it does lack the same impact as it would have with the whole of the preceding four hours, no matter how finely played and sung (and it was very fine indeed).

Still, good opera house Wagner is hard to come by, and by no means an everyday occurrence, so such concerts form a nice stopgap. My next full encounter with Wagner will be the Deutsche Oper Ring in April (a familiar conductor at the helm); I found myself wishing Brewer was going to be on duty there.

The only other grip is the failure to provide texts in the programme. Of course, the Philharmonia's programmes cover several concerts in one go, but I still take a dim view of it, especially when you write in it "The sung texts and a translation are available as a free supplement from the programme sellers before this concert". Well they weren't, and it really isn't good enough. If I knew I wasn't getting them, I could bring my own. Still, such administrative mess-ups aren't enough to blight artistic excellence.

Those unable to secure tickets to the Concertgebouw's Mahler second on Sunday afternoon could do worse than check out Mackerras's second concert of Beethoven's sixth and chunks from Hansel and Gretel.

Monday 30 November 2009

Monday Night Film Club - Bunny and the Bull (and one exceptional film)

Last week I we saw the trailer for Bunny and the Bull and my overriding reaction was: hmmmm. This was a film I was in no hurry to see. Of course, one of the joys of Monday Night Film Club is that it means I go to see things I wouldn't otherwise bother with. Sometimes that can be bad, other times it can be exceptional. This falls into the latter category.

On a basic level, it is a road movie, though to call it that would be a bit like saying Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a martial arts movie or that Blade Runner has lots of robots in it: it would completely miss the point. Partly, this is because for the duration of the film Stephen, superbly and sensitively played by Edward Hogg, barely steps outside his house. Instead, though flashback, we get a journey as much through his mind as through Europe.

As the film opens, the camera winds its way through the house, credits appearing on household items such as the old fashioned rotary dial of the telephone, the tube of toothpaste, the paste itself writing in the sink, and so on. This meticulous attention to detail carries through the film as we meet Stephen, an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobic who between filing his dental floss and eating the same vegetable lasagne for lunch each day has hid himself from the world.

It is one year since he has ventured outside, and suddenly his neatly ordered life comes crashing down as he discovers the mice have been at the whole of his stock of ready meals. This launches a voyage through the mementos of his European tour with his friend Bunny (and equally superb Simon Farnaby). On one level, it's somewhat unclear how two such different people have come to be such close friends; on another, their relationship never feels unnatural.

The moment the narrative ventures outside the house, we leave any semblance of the ordinary. Instead, our characters inhabit animated or almost cardboard like sets, giving the film a magically surreal quality not a million miles away from the likes of Gilliam, Kaufman or Burton.

Gradually, we learn why Stephen is now a prisoner of his own mind. Writer and director Paul King expertly dips in and out of flashbacks, using a snowdome to transport the viewer to a mountaintop Swiss chalet, taking us to a fairground inside the mechanism of a clock. At times the transitions from the house to the recollections call to mind Joel tumbling through his memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the dream sequences that make up perhaps my favourite episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Restless, the season four finale). Similarly he knows how to hold onto an exquisite moment, such as when Stephen nearly kisses Eloisa (a fine performance by Veronica Echegui) in an archway in some unnamed and unidentifiable Spanish town. It is simply a wonder to look at.

I don't want to say any more about the plot than I have, it really isn't easy to explain; it's the sort of film you just have to see. However, don't be thinking it's simply a heartfelt and poignant journey, though it certainly is; and though it may bring a tear to your eye, it is also funny, so much so that if you were sticking on labels, the comedy one would have to be affixed and feature big bold type. It is hysterically funny at times, such as when Bunny begs Stephen for some underwear, Stephen's elaborate cocktails, or the argument in the car.

There really is nothing I can fault the film on. Perhaps one or two moments edge a little closer to gross-out comedy than I would like, the scene with the dogs, for example. However, such moments are generally so hilarious it's hard to see them as a flaw. There isn't a duff performance to be seen on the screen and there's a great soundtrack too, accentuating the moods well, but never outshining the film. They also know when no sound at all is needed. In a wonderfully powerful moment towards the end, the only sound was the whirr of the projector, reminding one that the Cameo is a proper cinema.

In short, this is a truly exceptional film, one of the finest I've seen this year, and I really can't recommend it highly enough. So what put me off initially? Well, Paul King is also the director of The Mighty Boosh, and what little I've seen of that has left me no desire to see more. Now I'm wondering if it deserves a proper viewing.

One final word - stay to the end of the credits - the final dedication is well worth the wait.


Actually, a final, final word is needed. A film this fine deserves one of our irregular awards. So, without further ado, I present:

The Paul King Award for a Stunning, Meticulously Crafted, Poignant and Hilarious Odyssey through the Imagination

Thinking about it, Joss Whedon deserves this award for Restless, so too do Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Monday Night Film Club - A Serious Man (and a pointless film)

I should put my cards on the table at the start: I'm not a fan of the Coen brothers' films. In fact, there's only been one that I've seen which I've really enjoyed, and that was their last one, Burn After Reading, mainly because it was hysterically funny.

The big problems I tend to have are that their films are often not about anything and lack characters I care about. While I did go into this with an open mind, A Serious Man falls down badly on both counts.

It tells the story of Larry Gopnik, a physics lecturer, who suffers an appalling run of bad luck. Now, at this point, I should put a spoiler warnings: I don't think I can review this without giving a way the plot. However, since it doesn't really have one, I don't think this much of a problem.

Of course, it has a plot in one sense: lots of bad things happen to Gopnik and the phalanx of characters surrounding him who aspire to being one dimensional. From all of this, he learns precisely nothing. Nobody in the film really goes on any kind of journey. And it ends, well, it ends mid-story with no real resolution, except to say that everyone's pretty well doomed.

On his way, he seeks advice, which is completely useless, from a series of Rabbis. It's hard to be sympathetic for him, since he does nothing to change his lot. Not only can you see why his wife leaves him, one struggles to imagine what made her marry him in the first place. I mean, he may be a nice enough guy, but there's nothing more to him. Then again, since there's nothing much to her character either, they're arguably a pretty decent match. This is characterisation of the kind of depth that a reasonably comprehensive analysis of everyone in the film could fit comfortably on the back of a single napkin (and still leave ample space to calculate a fair tip).

Of course, when a film isn't convincing you, all the little niggling things you'd otherwise forgive start to stick out like sore thumbs. Now, I realise academia has changed since the time this film was set, but I'm pretty certain that, even then, tenure wasn't on the cards if you'd published nothing. Why does his son still have to run away from the drug dealer after he's stolen the money he needed from his sister? Come to that, a drug dealer who advances credit! And why is Larry's doctor less determined to get hold of him than the man from the Columbia Record Club, especially given he clearly has terrible news.

Apparently, though, I've totally missed the point. This magnificent cinematic achievement is a clever reworking of the Book of Job. Except, of course, that it isn't. Job has a pretty happy ending all told. In other words, it's a moral with the moral removed. Hmmm. Genius!

The film isn't entirely without redeeming features, though. There are some funny moments - the kid who uses the f-work constantly, the man his wife leaves him for and his hideously ingratiating manner, the first Rabbi's belief that salvation can be located in the parking lot, second Rabbi's story about a man who finds a message engraved on someone's teeth. There's also an opportunity for spotting actors who've worked on Aaron Sorkin shows (there's Adam Arkin, who so superbly played Stanley Keyworth, first introduced to the West Wing to treat Josh for post-traumatic stress, here playing Gopnik's lawyer; Simon Helberg, who crops up as the first Rabbi, had much better opportunity to showcase his talents as one of the cast of the show within a show on Studio 60). The performances are solid enough, though playing such uniformly caricatured roles, nobody is in the slightest danger of stretching any acting muscles.

All told, there are many more rewarding ways to spend a couple of hours.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra Comes Home

Not that they've ever really been away, mind. No, the title is a reference to the fact that Saturday's concert was part of Homecoming Scotland 2009, an attempt to boost tourism by celebrating Scotland's culture. No bad thing, in and of itself, since there's lots of great stuff to celebrate, however the wisdom of the scheme has at times eluded me (such as when I sat through expensive cinema trailers in Edinburgh cinemas exhorting people to come home to, erm, Scotland, which still included Edinburgh when I last checked).

Whatever you may think of the spin, however, it's always nice to have an interesting programme of new music. At least, if you're moderately adventurous. To be honest, the programme was not terribly difficult, certainly not by the standards of some that I've been to in Aldeburgh. All the same, the Queen's Hall had an awful lot of empty seats. I really wish the audiences here weren't quite so stand-offish to new music. Still, those who came were amply rewarded.

First up was Kenneth Leighton, who while being an English composer, had a long association with the University of Edinburgh, thus qualifying for homecoming inclusion. The SCO played his Concerto for String Orchestra very well. The more I hear works for string orchestra the more I enjoy them, and this was no exception. The pizzicato second movement was a particular joy to hear.

This was followed by James MacMillan's Tryst. It was a slightly strange choice, since it was only two months to the day since the SCO last played it. Don't get me wrong, it's a fabulous piece, but MacMillan's written lots of other stuff, so if you're going to play two of his works in a season, why not actually play two and not just the same one twice? With its myriad of time changes and other challenges, it's a tricky piece, but the orchestra played well and conductor Garry Walker kept a tight grip on everything. That said, I think I preferred Lowe's reading in September (though this may well just be because that was preceded by an illustrated talk, and therefore I got more out of it that time).

After the interval it was the turn of Edward Harper. The programme was intended to feature his third symphony. Sadly, his death earlier this year left the work uncompleted. Instead the orchestra were joined by the SCO chorus to perform his second symphony. This was a powerful work, though at times it would have benefitted from more restraint volume wise, as would Tryst. When you have an orchestra and chorus in a comparatively small hall, it can all to easily overwhelm and Walker, as so many before him, didn't always get this balance quite right. However, overall it was a moving and compelling reading, particularly third movement, a poem by Ron Butlin describing families on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict who'd allowed the organs of victims of the conflict to be donated to those on the other side.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus were on particularly fine form. I've heard glowing reports about their current guest chorus master, the youthful Gregory Batsleer, from members of the chorus, and their performance certainly confirmed these. The orchestra should engage him permanently post haste. The only choral reservation concerned the soloist Alexander Robin Baker. I don't want to be too critical since he was a last minute replacement after Leigh Melrose dropped out. However, there was a tone to his voice that I didn't care for at all.

Still, minor reservations aside, it was a fine evening of modern music very well played. The more stuffy residents of Edinburgh really should give it a try sometime; they might actually find they like it!

Saturday 21 November 2009

Monday Night Film Club - Should you stare at The Men Who Stare at Goats?

It's been rather too long since my last film review and, indeed, my last visit to the cinema, so it was nice to be back in the Cameo full stop.


When I first saw the poster for The Men Who Stare at Goats, I assumed it was the new Coen brothers movie (the title seemed suitably daft, Bridges and Clooney are both veterans of their films and the typeface isn't a million miles away from that used in the Burn After Reading poster). It's not though, that is A Simple Man which has just opened here. However, it certainly does feel a little like it.

For starters, and I suspect I may offend Coen brothers fans at this point, there isn't terribly much of a plot, or much satisfaction at the end, and there is a general absence of characters I care terribly much about. Ewan McGregor plays Bob, a distinctly second rate journalist whose wife has left him for the editor. He heads to Iraq where he falls in with Lyn (played by George Clooney). Lyn is, it turns out, a Jedi and on a secret mission to rescue his mentor (Bridges) from the clutches of the dark side (led by Spacey). Now, the makers of the film are clearly under the impression that because McGregor played one in the three rubbish Star Wars films, it is therefore hilarious when he says the word Jedi, or when anyone else says it to him. And while it does produce a wry smile the first time round, once we get to the fifteenth one can't help but think this is a script/casting combination that seemed like a really good idea after a few pints in the pub and that the acting talent on display here is somewhat wasted.

It seems that in the 60s the US Army decided it would be a good idea to explore the paranormal, culminating in an attempt to kill a goat simply by looking at it, and thus give the film its title. This all provides for the film's second joke: to make fun of weird and wacky beliefs and hippies in general. And, to be sure, it does this very well: highlights include the disco dancing soldiers, a general attempting, and failing, to phase through a solid wall and Lyn being so distracted by his attempts to burst clouds that he crashes into a rock in the middle of a deserted desert road. However, the trouble is, aside from a lovely moment where they run over an Iraqi whilst protesting he's safe because they're Americans and here to help, it is just these two jokes that sustain the film. That might do in an hour an a half sit-com, but when stretched to ninety minutes, quite a brief film by modern standards, it feels a bit long. It isn't helped by a structure that is very heavily reliant on flashbacks.

None of which is to say it's a terrible film. It's actually rather enjoyable and they're are plenty of laughs, even if they're mainly the same ones. At the end of the day, sit back and stick your mind firmly into neutral. Not unmissable by a long shot, but there are much worse ways to spend an hour a half.

We're told at the start it's based on a true story. I have little difficulty believing that the US and Russia, each afraid the other might be, wasted time and money looking into this hokum, but beyond that..... well, let's just say I don't think the goats have much to worry about.