Wednesday 30 September 2009

The Where's Runnicles Awards

Every now and again, usually towards the end of one of my reviews, I suggest that an artist has done something so remarkable, they deserve an award. So I give them one.

The Background

Where's Runnicles Awards aren't terribly typical. Most awards, be they the Oscars or the Nobel Prize (or others closer to our level), are awarded on a regular basis. This begs the question of what happens in a year when no remarkable candidates exist or when there is an embarrassment of riches? The result is unfair. The mathematical Fields Medal partially gets around this by awarding every four years to a variable number.

We here have adopted a different and altogether more ad hoc approach. If something brilliant arises deserving an award, it gets one there and then, and an absurdly specific one at that. It may never be awarded again; it may be awarded the very next week.

A Where's Runnicles Award carries no actual prize, physical or financial, and brings nothing more than the glory, or infamy (since they can also be awarded for bad things), of the title, whatever that may mean. They are always named after someone, usually their inaugural recipient, and have absurdly overlong and complicated names. But that's part of the fun.

So, if it's all a little slapdash, why have a whole post about it? Well, we've given out enough that I'm struggling to remember what there have been and who's had them, so this is as much an aide-memoire as anything else.

Since there isn't much structure, I will go through the awards in the order they were created, save splitting the good and the bad. There is a link to the review that gained them their title (the first recipient's review may explain any odd quirks in the name).

Last updated - 2009-11-07

The Good Awards

The Rachel Barton Pine Award for Encores that Alone Justify the Ticket Price
  • Rachel Barton Pine for Ernst's solo violin arrangement of Schubert's Der Erlkonig, 2008-10-28.
  • Sakari Oramo for his performance of Sibelius's Finlandia with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, 2008-10-28 (a retroactive award for this concert).
  • Frank Peter Zimmermann for his performance of Paganini's God Save the King Variations, 2009-07-06.

The Aaron Sorkin Award for Writing a Script That Makes Sport Compelling to People Who Couldn't Usually Care Less About It

We never actually officially gave one to Aaron Sorkin for Sport's Night, his genius show set behind the scenes of a TV sports news programme, so here it is.

The Peter Mew and Mark Wilder Award for Audio Remastering that Genuinely and Significantly Adds to and Improves upon Previous Releases
  • Mark Wilder for his work on Sony's series of Miles Davis remasters, 2009-07-14.
  • Peter Mew for his work on remasting Thomas Dolby's first two albums, 2009-07-14.

The Gary Walker Award for Stepping into Gargantuan Shoes at the Last Minute and Turning in a Fantastic Performance
  • Gary Walker for taking over from Charles Mackerras, 2009-08-27.
  • James Lowe for taking over from Frans Bruggen, 2008-12-19 (a retroactive award).
  • Alfred Kim for taking over from Jonas Kaufmann, 2009-09-27.

The James Lowe and Scottish Chamber Orchestra award for a Brilliant Performance of a Fiendishly Tricky Work
  • James Lowe and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for their performance of MacMillan's Tryst, 2009-09-29.

The Paul King Award for a Stunning, Meticulously Crafted, Poignant and Hilarious Odyssey through the Imagination
  • Paul King for Bunny and the Bull, 2009-11-30.
  • Joss Whedon for Restless, the season four finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 2009-11-30 (a retroactive award).
  • Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2009-11-30 (a retroactive award).

The Enchanted Pig Award for a Production Team who Inventively Transport the Audience to Another World and Should Never Be Out of Work Again
  • John Fulljames, Dick Bird, Bruno Poet and Philippe Giraudeau for The Enchanted Pig, 2009-12-12.

The Opera Group Award for an Ensemble who Quickly and Effortlessly Glide Through Countless Costume Changes, Portraying Myriad Parts to Perfection
  • The Opera Group for The Enchanted Pig, 2009-12-12.

The Donald Runnicles Award for Outstanding Placement of Offstage Instruments to Produce a Magical Effect, Unreproducible on even the Very Best Hi-Fi Equipment
  • Mariss Jansons for his placement of offstage horns, trumpets and percussion in Mahler's second symphony with the Concertgebouw, 2009-12-13.
  • Donald Runnicles, for his placement of the offstage horn in Mahler's third symphony, 2009-12-13 (a retroactive award for this 2005 concert).
  • Donald Runnicles, for his placement of the offstage brass in the Proms performance of Gotterdammerung, 2009-12-13 (a retroactive award for this 2007 concert).
  • And, once again, Donald Runnicles, for his placement of the offstage bells in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, 2009-12-13 (a retroactive award for this 2009 concert).
  • Simon Rattle, the Berliner Philharmoniker, Stephan Dohr and Tashio Hosokawa for scattering a trumpet, trombone and two horns through the Barbican auditorium in for Hosokawa's Moment of Blossoming, 2011-02-22.

The Bad Awards

The Jose Serebrier Award for Inappropriate Encores
  • Jose Serebrier for playing anything after Ravel's arrangement of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, 2008-10-28
  • .

The Niles Crane 'Sprinkling Hand' Award for Production Teams who Should Never be Permitted to Work in that Capacity Ever Again

This award, of course, breaks one of the rules, but since it was only the third ever created we'll let it off. Named, not for it's recipient, how could Niles Crane earn a bad award, but rather from a quote by the character.
  • Justin Way, Kim Kovac, Andrew Hays and Steve Elias for their production of The Beggar's Opera, 2009-01-25.

The George Lucas Award for Defectating on the Glorious Memories of a Once Fine Franchise

This award was mentioned in my reivew of Red Dwarf's ignominious return. However, it wasn't actually awarded. Doug Naylor tried his best, bless him, but in the end he simply wasn't in Lucas's league. Properly, though, I suppose the award should be given to Lucas for The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). If anyone is wondering why Revenge of the Sith (2005) is missing, it's only because I haven't seen it.

The Star Trek Award for Out of Place Product Placement
  • Star Trek (2009) for including a branded mobile phone, 2009-05-17.
  • Die Another Day (2002) for having James Bond use an electric razor, 2009-05-17 (a retroactive award).

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
  • Pilippa Ibbotson for this piece in the Guardian on 2009-10-06, awarded in my response on 2009-11-06.
  • Charles Hazelwood for suggesting classical music can be saved by going outdoors, and that none before him have suggested this (a retroactive award made in the 2009-11-06 article).

The Future...

This list will grow and be added to as more awards are created and given away so keep an eye out.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Medals all round - James Lowe and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra play MacMillan

Officially the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's 2009/10 season doesn't start until a week on Thursday. Tonight's performance was perhaps intended as something of an aperitif (well, given it was tucked away at the back of the season brochure, perhaps that's not the right word).

On paper I can see why it wasn't the curtain raiser. Under the Masterworks heading, the performance of James MacMillan's Tryst was preceded by an illustrated talk and dissection of the piece. This is part of an educational outreach project that will see the performance given to a number of schools across Scotland (great stuff - we never had that in my day, which wasn't all that long ago). However, it was such a wonderful experience that I can see no justification for not putting it front and centre; this sort of thing should be celebrated.

I entered the dimmed Queen's Hall to find reading lights clipped to all the music stands. The reason for this soon became clear - under stage lighting we wouldn't have seen the projector screen properly.

Conductor James Lowe, who made a stunning debut with the orchestra last December as an eleventh hour stand in, then took to the podium and led the orchestra through the piece's opening bars. Their playing was crisp in what sounded a tricky piece.

Paul Rissmann then addressed the audience and proceeded to detail just what an understatement that is. I play the trombone, badly, in an amateur orchestra. I mention this because when playing I don't like it if the time signature of a piece changes, which should give an indication of how bad I am. With twenty-something time changes in the space of forty-six bars, I imagine I'd have a nervous breakdown if anyone asked me to play it; I'd be surprised if it didn't make hardened pros think twice. And they weren't easy time signatures either, rather things like 7/16, leading me to wonder if MacMillan is a fan of Don Ellis's superb jazz album Electric Bath, whose five splendid tracks are in 5/4, 7/4, 13/4, 19/4 and 15/16 (but then, Ellis also added a fourth valve to his trumpet so he could play in quarter tones; he didn't like to do things the easy way). I'm in awe of anyone who can play or conduct a piece like this; to do it so well deserves medals.

Rissmann's talk, continually illustrated with excerts played by the orchestra, did far more than list tricky time signatures. Rather, he deconstructed the work, taking us from its root in an old Scots poem (accounting for his pronunciation of it as Try-st), through MacMillan's setting to an folk tune and a later chamber piece, to the work itself. He explored twelve tone composition, demonstrated perfectly by the twelve wind and horn players, and showed the way themes cropped up again and again. This was made all the more illuminating by incredible graphic displays on the screen, often colour-keying the notes on the stave or jumping them around and lining them up. This visual razzmatazz seemed to have been made possible by use of Apple's Keynote software (which was developed for Steve Jobs to give his infamously showy presentations). At least, so I assume, it was being run of a Mac anyway.

After the interval they put it all together. And even though I could only remember about half of what he had told us, I was still very glad of the presentation. The orchestra played wonderfully, from the fiendish opening, through the twelve tone progressions, to the beautiful slow section and then the frantic countdown finale, where the violins repeated a phrase over and over, cutting it shorter each time, before the piece's tantalising end.

It was a splendid performance and a great start to what promises to be a fine season. The only reservation was that they were sometimes a little loud in places, especially the wailing themes on the clarinets, but this is probably what MacMillan wanted.

As I said above, they all deserve medals. Sadly, we at Where's Runnicles don't have any medals to give. We do have awards though. So, without further ado, and, as ever, named after the inaugural recipient(s), I present: the James Lowe and Scottish Chamber Orchestra award for a Brilliant Performance of a Fiendishly Tricky Work.

Only one question remains: why didn't the SCO book Lowe for one of their main season concerts? Hopefully they will next year, they certainly should.

Sunday 27 September 2009

Don Carlos Redux

I wrote a lengthy review when this superb production first appeared at the Royal Opera House a little over a year ago. It was so brilliant that when it showed up this season, I knew I had to go again. Fortunately, my view a year on is largely unchanged, so I won't praise the production again, or moan about the cuts that shouldn't have been made, since I'd just be repeating myself (you can also read that for an explanation of why I insist on calling it Don Carlos, not Carlo as seems to be the current fashion).

There are some changes though. First and foremost, the title has been recast. This only enhanced its appeal, since Rolando Villazon was a weak link in 2008: his voice too small for the part, Pappano having to restrain the orchestra too much to compensate. There should have been no such problems with his replacement Jonas Kaufmann. Sadly, I'm unable to judge, since Kaufmann was taken ill and replaced by Alfred Kim for my performance.

The announcement may have occasioned groans of disappointment from the audience, but they were misplaced. Despite only having flown in that morning, Kim was superb. It helped that he'd stood in during last year's illness plagued run, and also played the role when the production went to Norway. True, his voice was perhaps a little light, and yet he had no difficult finding power when needed and always seemed to carry over the orchestra. His acting was solid too. Altogether it was one of the finest last minute stand-in performances I've witnessed and preferable to Villazon's reading last year.

Opposite him, Marina Poplavskaya remained as Elizabeth. Her acting seemed less wooden than last time around; I suspect it will have helped that wasn't battling illness. However, she doesn't entirely sweep me away.

Keenlyside, on the other hand, also retaining his role of Rodrigo, was astonishing. Not simply in terms of the quality of his voice, superb though that is, but his exceptional acting talent. For my money, and for this reason, he is one of the finest opera singers in the world. The sheer power, for example, of the scene in act three where he disarms Carlos was stunning.

Ferruccio Furlanetto also remained in place as Philip II, and was similarly impressive, both in his voice and his acting.

Marianne Cornetti's Eboli, on the other hand, was rather disappointing. A voice too heavy with vibrato and not nearly light, agile or pretty enough to carry off her big act two aria. That said, I warmed to her in acts three and four, perhaps because the role changes and the character behaves more nastily and thus fits her voice better.

The role of the Grand Inquisitor was taken by John Tomlinson. It was a powerful performance, though. to my taste, his booming voice was not so ideally suited to the role, or as spine chilling, as Halfvarson was last year (though this really is splitting hairs).

Robert Lloyd was simply staggering as the monk/ghost of Carlos V. His voice booming through Covent Garden with such power you might have thought it was amplified. It's a fairly minor part, but breathtaking to have it cast so well.

It's an old joke, but to do Don Carlos well, what you really need is the six best singers in the world. No production is ever actually going to manage that, but to get a cast as strong as this one is to have done pretty well.

Which only leaves one major change: Semyon Bychkov replacing Antonio Pappano in the pit. This choice doesn't seem to have gone down terribly well with critics, but for the life of me I can't see why. I was expecting good things, having the other week heard Verdi Requiems by both him and Pappano on CD Review, and preferred Bychkov. His handling of the score was, to these ears, superb. There was none of the feeling of holding back for fear of drowning the singers that sometimes existed last year. I'd read elsewhere it was a slow reading, but didn't find that. Instead he seemed fluid: quick when called for, broader tempi elsewhere; beautifully delicate playing at times, overwhelming force at others, such as the crowd scenes. The playing of the orchestra was exceptional, particularly some of the winds and a beautiful cello solo.

All told, it was, if anything, slightly better than last time. I know an attempt was made to tape it for DVD then. However, I suspect it's failure to appear is down to the number of performances that didn't feature the headline cast. Things have gone much more smoothly this time round, so I hope to goodness we can expect an Opus Arte issue post haste. If not, they'll just have to revive it again.....

Update 2009/09/28

One more thing, I realise Alfred Kim deserves an award or his performance. Fortunately, we recently inaugurated just the one: The Gary Walker Award for Stepping into Gargantuan Shoes at the Last Minute and Turning in a Fantastic Performance.

Saturday 26 September 2009

Away we go to Monday Night Film Club

It's been far too long since the last instalment of Monday Night Film Club and my last visit to the Cameo, or, indeed, any other cinema. But the festival will do that.

Owing to the club's founder's other commitments, I wasn't expecting another visit for a little while, but was pleasantly surprised a week last Monday to get a text message to the contrary, just as I was about to roll up my sleeves for some overtime. Needless to say, Away We Go, the new Sam Mendes film was a much more attractive proposition.

The first thing that struck me about the film is that it's funny, often extremely funny, the scene with the pushchair especially. Of course, we know Mendes can do light-hearted. There are, after all, some exceptional comic moments in America Beauty. Indeed, generally I think that's a much more positive film than most other people seem to. But after some of his recent films (Revolutionary Road anyone?) it isn't the first thing you expect.

The story follows Burt and Verona (superb performances from John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) as a thirty-something couple about to have a child. John's parents decide to head to Europe, despite their having relocated to be near them with a view to having help raising their child. They soon realise this means they can move anyway and go anywhere they like. Cue road, or rather, road, rail and air trip across America and Canada, during the course of which they meet a rather disturbing series of friends and acquaintances.

Alison Janney, playing a former colleague of Maya's, and a thoroughly dysfunctional mother who constantly insults her children, since it's "all white noise to them", is first up. It's always nice to see West Wing alumni and she delivers a great comic performance.

The supporting cast is superb in general, especially Maggie Gyllenhaal's LN (not Ellen), a new age hippie type with an abhorrence for pushchairs "why would I want to push my child away". That said, they do tend towards caricature and the question of how they ended up with this mess of friends (raised by the Scotsman, in a generally unkind review) is a fair one.

As the film progresses, the encounters become more poigniant and less funny, but this doesn't really matter. Indeed, it is arguably a good thing as it does much to give the film its charming and uplifting feel. In the end, it doesn't really matter where they end up, that isn't what's important, and I would argue it might be better if we hadn't found out.

The film was followed by a live hook-up to a London cinema where Mendes was present for a Q&A session. This was interesting to the see, particularly learning that he went straight from Revolutionary Road to this. We also learnt that co-author Dave Eggers (who wrote it with his partner Vendela Vida) was previously responsible for the novel A Heartbreaking work of Staggering Genius, so not a man with any ego problems then. One can't help wondering if the title was selected just so people would introduce him as "the author of....".

Enron with lightsabres

Most people probably wouldn't immediately associate the mythic weapon from George Lucas's sci-fi saga with one of the biggest corporate bankruptcies in history, but then I suppose that director Rupert Goold is not most people. However, this conflation lies of the heart of why I found his production of Lucy Prebble's new play so disappointing.

Enron (at the Royal Court Theatre) compresses the better part of a decade and a half in to just under three hours, narrating the story of the rise and fall of the Texan energy giant, focusing on its executives.

It's apparent from the start that the choice has been made that this is not straight and serious drama, perhaps the nuances of the financial system are judged insufficiently interesting for this. However, the extent to which the three blind mice who appear at the beginning add anything to the production is debatable. It is a sign of things to come.

As Andrew Fastow, eventually the company's Chief Financial Officer (and superbly played by Tom Goodman-Hill), develops elaborate shadow companies in which to hide the firm's losses and with which to prop up its share price, he is stalked by velociraptors straight out of Jurassic Park, so much so that the closing words of the first act are a quote from the movie. The culmination of this absurdist streak comes as a dozen or more traders, making waves in California's newly liberalised energy market, spend the better part of ten minutes waving lightsabres around. Now, in fairness to Goold, who among us hasn't had a fantasy of getting to play with a lightsabre (and the props are pretty convincing). It just doesn't really relate to the play, indeed it gets in the way of the drama.

You could argue this is an attempt to capture the irrational exuberance that lead to Enron's downfall, and it's illicit behaviour when the real profits didn't materialise. Certainly some such choices are justified: showing the energy traders as people shouting and waving arms is fair enough in comparison to people sitting in front of computer screens.

More generally, the play often feels to me to put razzmatazz ahead of substance. If you're looking for a straight-laced and analytical play you will not find it. Perhaps it's felt that it wouldn't be interesting or dramatic enough, but I can't help feeling it's dumbed down a little. Did we really need the slightly patronising and fourth-wall-breaking explanation of what a rating agent does?

Perhaps if some sequences, such as the rather unmemorable song about market trading, or other movement based sequences, had been cut there would have been time for something slightly more intellectual. According to the Wall Street Journal it was originally intended as a musical and this shows.

Often things are played for comedy, but most of the jokes didn't make me laugh. Having the Lehman Brothers portrayed by two people in a single costume resembled pantomime too much for my liking. Yet at times, it was clearly intended to be deadly serious, the last twenty minutes or so especially. The problem is, by that point its credibility had fallen like Enron's stock price.

It wasn't unremittingly awful, though, far from it. The play is extremely watchable and there are many fine performances. Samuel West's Jeffrey Skilling and Tim Pigott-Smith's Ken Lay (the firm's two top executives) stand out among a strong cast. Yes, some accents occasionally slip, but overwhelmingly the standard is high.

The production design is pretty solid too. The vertical tube lights that fly up and down don't add much work, and sometimes get in the way, but the back screen onto which lots of things are projected, especially stock prices, and the ticker updating you on the company's fortunes are excellent. Similarly Lay's office, high above and looking down on the stage, is effective.

In the end, though, if there's one lesson to take from that gold standard of drama, The West Wing, it's that a bunch of people doing nothing more than talking about, on paper, exceptionally dull things, can make for astonishingly compelling viewing. I'd love to see someone try and tackle Enron in the same way.

I was, however, very much in the minority. Probably a minority of one. Everyone else seemed to have absolutely adored it.

Opera Spectacular - Ligeti's La Grand Macabre

It's not every day you go to the opera house to be greeted by a safety curtain emblazoned with a giant skull and crossbones. Still rarer for that curtain to rise to reveal a giant, naked female sculpture, crouched forward awkwardly and occupying the majority of the stage.

Then again, Ligeti isn't an everyday composer and La Grand Macabre certainly isn't an every day opera. The plot, such as it is, concerns the titular Nekrotzar, well sung by Pavlo Hunka, attempting to destroy the world with a comet. During the course of this we see a variety of decadence and depravity.

From a technical standpoint it is one of the more impressive opera productions I've seen. The statue's leg slides open here to reveal a dining room table complete with live chickens, people appear from various orifices there. The blank white sculpture is frequently brought to life with vivid projections - the most clever of which shows the skeleton, appearing perfectly as though a three dimensional x-ray were being performed, more amazingly still, this is maintained as it rotates (I'd love to know exactly how they did that).

Musically too things are of a high calibre with the orchestra of English National Opera on fine form under the baton of Baldur Bronnimann. And they need to be. Legiti's score is an absolute marvel: from the fabulous brass fanfares, often discordant, that permeate the work to the stunning drums that punctuate so much of the action, they do not miss a beat. The composer also impresses in quieter moments, such as the surreal scene in which two of the characters float above the stage, believing themselves to be ascending to heaven. Add to this the off-stage brass and tolling bell, and it was a special listening experience

The cast is solid too, displaying good acting as well as singing, Frances Bourne and Rebecca Bottone playing lovers Amando and Amanda stand out, so too Susan Bickley's dominatrix housewife and Susanna Andersson's dual turn as Venus and the chief of the secret police. Similarly the men, from Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke's drunken Piet the Pot, to the henpecked astronomer Astradamors (Frode Olsen). Daniel Norman and Simon Butteriss do well as the black and white ministers, as does Andrew Watts as Prince Go-Go.

An unqualified success then. Well, actually, no. Dramatically speaking it isn't completely compelling. For a start, none of the characters illicit the slightest emotional sympathy. I suspect that's part of the point, but the fact remains that I never really engage with them or care terribly much what becomes of them. If it's intended as a scathing satire on society, such sympathy shouldn't matter. The trouble is that it doesn't really stack up on this count. To be sure there's plenty of sex and debauchery going on, yet it manages never to be erotic (save for musically, where Ligeti's aria for Amando and Amanda's intercourse is rather special) nor is it particularly shocking. This despite people emerging from every part of the 'body' imaginable. Similarly, while there are some funny moments to the libretto, these are too few and far between; a scene where the two ministers hurl abuse at each other is rather tame by modern standards.

The production may be over the top, but one has to wonder how dramatically compelling it would be if it wasn't. However, this is a problem because the staging, and the reaction, at times actually get in the way of enjoyment of that sumptuous and inventive score. Indeed, more than once I found myself wondering what it would be like to hear a concert performance.

Nonetheless, it was a new and different experience, enjoyable and thoroughly recommendable.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Ears Today, Gone Tomorrow

The more attentive of you may have noticed that I haven't posted an Ears Today in a little while, not for very nearly two weeks in fact.

Why not? Well, I've been struggling a little to find the time. It's true that I have been doing it in a slightly long winded way, and with pictures which probably aren't necessary, but that's how I want to do it and I'm not sure I'd be happy doing it a quicker way (this shouldn't, incidentally, be taken as criticism of the way @violamaths does it, whose enjoyable posts are the whole reason I started writing these; it's just that that isn't really my style).

There are other writing things that are a higher priority for me (mainly for this website, and one or two other things that may appear in due course), so I'm going to let the ears fall by the wayside.

Except, of course, that while just a basic list doesn't quite fit with my style for this site, there is one place it does fit very well: twitter. So the ears will live on with twitter updates for what I'm listing to right now (follow them here).

Sorry to all those who enjoyed them for the brief time they were here. It's always possible that they may make the odd cameo when time permits.

Sunday 13 September 2009

Gardiner conducts Bach, Handel and another Bach

I'm not always a fan of John Eliot Gardiner. His Bach is impressive and his recording of Beethoven's fourth symphony ranks among the finest. However, in my view the less said about his Brahms recordings or his choice of a jacket that had lime green cuffs the better. However, we were here for his musical talent not his sartorial taste, and a programme of Bach and Handel was home ground, and, accompanied by two ensembles he founded, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, he was unlikely to disappoint.

The programme began JC Bach's Es erhub sich ein Streit, the more famous Bach's first cousin once removed. It was a fun and dynamic piece, well played an sung. True, the period trumpets struggled a little with some fiendishly difficult trills, but I'm not sure anyone on original instruments could do much better.

Then came part one of Handel's Israel in Egypt. This too was well played and very dramatic, Gardiner particularly bringing out some wonderful textures for such occurrences as the plague of locusts. However, I would have preferred slightly more balance towards the choir. Solid, and sometimes very strong solo performances were drawn from the choir. Indeed, the only significant problem was what on earth happened to the other two parts. Their absence was the more baffling given they are currently touring with the complete work. Apparently the justification for this was that Haim brought the whole thing last year. Very possibly, but on that basis the whole thing should have been banned. Similarly, I feel I should point out to those responsible for programming that the Orchestre des Champs-Elysees brought Mendelssohn's Scottish symphony and Elijah, both of which the Scottish Chamber Orchestra have already played earlier this year (and that around two thirds of the festival audience is local).

In place of the rest of the Handel, the second half was taken up by some Bach cantatas, in keeping with one of this year's themes. We got BWV130 and 19, both written for the feast of St Michael, along with the miniature BWV50. Gardiner's ability with these works is well know from his series of cantata recordings from 2000, and their performances were similarly assured, such that it was hard to be too irked by the truncation of the Haydn. The only minor reservation concerned the soprano in BWV19 who didn't have a big enough voice from the hall, and sounded constantly out of breath as a result. However, this was in general first class Bach playing and singing. Each bar was enthused with drama and energy in a way that was the polar opposite of the lamentable Actus Tragicus.

They were deservedly well received and, perhaps thumbing their noses at having been asked not to play all of the Handel, gave us a stunning encore from it, with a fantastic and fantastically powerful soprano solo.

One thing that did puzzle me was Gardiner's decision to constantly call the soloists down from the choir. This wasn't a problem in theory, but they never waited for the music to finish before doing so and often caused unnecessary noise as a result. He also moved his trumpets around a lot, but unlike Runnicles, didn't seem to achieve a radically different sound in the process. The staff of the Usher Hall would do well to oil one of the platforms they stood on, as it squeaked incessantly.

The concert is on Radio 3 on Thursday at 7pm and well worth tuning in for.

Metzmacher and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin play some passacaglias

When I've come across Ingo Metzmacher he's mostly been conducting fifth symphonies: I first heard him with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester in 2003 performing Mahler's, in 2006 with the Rotterdam Philharmonic it was Bruckner's. This year he brought one of Berlin's other orchestras for some rather different programming. The theme was Passacaglias.

They began with Webern's, which I found a little cluttered and lacking the clarity in his interpretation that Runnicles found in the composer's Im Sommerwind.

They were then joined on stage by Christian Tetzlaff to play Berg's violin concerto (not, as it seems possible some people behind us expected, Bruch's, based on their comment that they remembered it being "more romantic" than that). This was wonderful and Tetzlaff excelled in a technically difficult solo. Below him the orchestral accompaniment was of a high order. Metzmacher brought a strong sense of narrative to the piece. The tantalising and extended climb into the violin's upper register that brought the piece to a close was sublime and, in general, there was a nicely haunted feel to it, as one might expect of a work that was apparently influence by the death of family friend. As an encore he gave us a piece of solo Bach.

Alone in the second half sat Brahms' final symphony, with it's passacaglia finale. This was solid but lacked drama early on, though grew more impressive as the piece progressed, the last few bars of the first movement especially. The third movement was very exciting and the finale good, but it seemed to lack that extra interpretive something (which was only underscored by the fact I'd reached the Brahms four in my new Furtwangler box set, whose every bar drips with power, tension and emotion).

The orchestra were one of few big name continental bands at this year's festival and they are a fairly impressive ensemble, and very well balanced too.

The Rose Street Ensemble present another interesting programme

Ever since I first met them a year or so ago, through my friend Caroline who is one of their first violins (hence this review's shameless plug tag), I've been looking forward to Rose Street Ensemble's next concert.

Last August they played a fascinating programme which drew works and their inspirations side by side, for example Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was preceded by the original Tallis (with a wonderful split choir effect) and so on. Perhaps most interestingly of all, Bartok's Romanian Dances were preceded by crackling old field recordings made by Bartok himself.

This year's programme, while interestingly chosen, was not quite so insightful. The theme was émigré and so grouped together the works of Hans Gal, Rachmaninoff and Bartok. The three pieces for string orchestra were separated by some lieder and readings of the composers' own writings by Crawford Logan.

Gal came first, not a composer I can remember having come across before. Following the war he relocated to Edinburgh and was involved in the establishment of the International Festival. They played his Serenade for Strings, op.46. The ensemble, under the baton of James Lowe (whom we previously met with the SCO back in December) played with a nice rich sound, all the more impressive when one considers this is a scratch orchestra of amateurs and professionals that only meets once a year and had its first rehearsal only a week and a half earlier. It was an interesting and lyrical piece, but, since I've not heard it before, harder to judge further.

This was followed by Logan's first reading. It was thought-provoking, and at often times displaying a grim humour as he described the conditions of internment. Sadly, his voice was rather overamplified and one couldn't help but wonder if amplification was even needed at all in a comparatively small space like Canongate Kirk.

After this alto Judy Brown took to the stage to sing Gal's Five songs for middle voice and piano, op.33. She had a nice voice, if perhaps a touch thin at times, and pleasantly free of vibrato. I'm not the biggest fan of lieder and these didn't seem to be great examples of the genre. Simon Smith provided solid piano accompaniment.

Then it was time for Rachmaninoff, and the order was reversed with the songs kicking things off. This time soprano Emma Morwood was accompanied by Robin Hutt in a selection from Songs, op.34 (nos. 1, 5, 8 and 14). Unfortunately, I didn't care for her voice at all. There was an excessive vibrato lending it the siren like quality that I dislike so much about Eva Marton. Of course, I don't really know the piece, so this may be what was called for and judging from the reception, I seemed in a minority on this view. The final song vocalise was perhaps the nicest, and most nicely done.

Following another reading, we got the Romance and Scherzo from his first string quartet, rearranged by the composer for string orchestra. Interestingly, we first got a taste of this from the smaller Rose Street Quartet back in August. I wasn't swept away by it then but much preferred it in the thicker orchestral sound. Lowe brought a nice wit to the closing coda and in his hands the trio section did not appear as weak as the programme note suggested.

After the interval it was the turn of Bartok and the music of the evening that was most to my taste. Judy Brown and Simon Smith returned to the stage for a moving performance of a selection from Eight Hungarian Folk Songs, BB47. They had a nice melancholy air and piano and voice blended beautifully. It was helped by the fact that Brown's voice seemed a better fit to the music than with the Gal.

Logan gave a final reading before the final piece. They had saved the best until last with Bartok's Divertimento for Strings, BB118. Not a work I thought I knew, though it turns out I have it on a disc by Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Lowe exhibited brilliant control, from impressive quiet playing to pulsing drama. It was not an easy piece, and while it may not have been note perfect it was played with such drama and passion that it didn't matter. The adagio was riven with a seething tension beneath the surface, calling to mind the opening of Shostakovich's 11th symphony which has a similarly low and ominous feel to it. They then launched into the thrilling finale, Lowe accentuating the drama at every turn, yet also bringing humour to the lovely waltz pastiche. It was a fantastic performance, something underscored by the fact that on listening this afternoon, the Mackerras disc didn't quite seem to have the same energy.

The concert was being held to raise money for the charity War Child. What a shame it will be another year or so until they present another one. With any luck we might get such string orchestra gems as Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra, Strauss's Metamorphosen or Mahler's arrangement of Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet which the SCO played so well last season. Scottish audiences don't have to wait so long to hear Lowe again, he'll be conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on 28th September in James MacMillan's Tryst. Where's Runnicles will be there.

Saturday 12 September 2009

Ears Today - 2009-09-11

As yesterday, the Ears kicked off with the 29th August issue of the Economist (so still as behind as ever). However, since there were actually some papers on the bus this morning, a switch to some music was necessitated.


Erich Kleiber's sublime reading of Le Nozze di Figaro with the Vienna Philharmonic in, I believe, Decca's first stereo recording. It's beautiful and has an impressively live and dramatic feel for a studio performance. The disc also saw me through building up some flexi-time at work and lasted nearly perfectly until my front door.

Then it was time to catch Jonathan Nott's Prom with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (an ensemble I've long been a fan of) before it vanished from the iPlayer. They played Ligeti's Atmospheres, Mahler's Kindertotenlieder and Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces, op.16, with Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra following after the interval. There was some superb playing and the Ligeti was especially fine. But the Mahler didn't really grab me; Goerne is a fine singer, but I never feel the piece sounds quite right with baritone. Also sprach Zarathustra isn't my favourite Strauss either, and this wasn't the most compelling reading of it.


Then, at the recommendation of @BBCMusicMag, I gave Harnoncourt's recording of Schubert's great C major symphony a try. I'm not a fan of his generally, and this proved no exception. Somehow he managed to make the Concertgebouw sound most unlike themselves. It was often a little dull for my taste and just didn't grab me. Doubtless, though, his many fans will read this paragraph and be as baffled as I am by him.

After a brief and infuriating interlude watching a two bit con artist lie about how he didn't predict the results of the lottery, I tried a different perspective and went to Welser-Most's Prom with the Vienna Phil for a rerun of the Schubert. Interestingly he was standing in for Harnoncourt. This was much more like it, though the decision to omit repeats in all but the scherzo gave it an odd feel. I wish I had a better memory of how he did it in Edinburgh with the Cleveland Orchestra five years ago (sadly I wasn't writing reviews then).


Finally, before bed, it was back to Spotify, where after some lengthy searching (their classical search capabilities are useless, to say the least), a few days ago I managed to assemble Vernon Handley's Elgar recordings. His sublime reading of the first symphony with the LPO made for a very nice start.

Friday 11 September 2009

Ears today - 2009-09-10

Not much for the Ears today.

To and from work (and to and from orchestra) they were accompanied by the audio edition of the Economist, in an effort to catch back up. It was the 29th August issue, so briefly today I was only a week behind.


Then it was off to orchestra. I play trombone, very badly, in the amateur Stockbridge and New Town Community Orchestra, affectionately SNOTCO; that said, I do hold the distinction of being the best trombonist, but mainly because I'm also the only trombonist. Interestingly, membership seems to have ballooned and we were almost too big for the hall at St Stephen's Church (our temporary home while Stockbridge Parish Church is refurbished). However, while we now have three basses, six violas and more violins than I could count, we still only have the one trombone. If you're from Edinburgh and fancy joining me to play the trombone badly, or even well, on a Thursday evening, followed by a trip to the pub, let me know.

Being essentially a sports hall the acoustic was less than ideal. However, in it we rehearsed Walton's Crown Imperial, which does have some rather fun brass action, Malcolm Arnold's Little Suite No.2 and, for fun, Live and Let Die from a James Bond medley.

Once home, and while writing this, it was time for the evening's Prom, which the digibox had handily recorded. Welser-Most had stepped in for an indisposed Harnoncourt to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic. I must admit, I'm quite shocked by how few women there are in the orchestra. I found Haydn's 98th symphony a little staid. I'm enjoying Schubert's great C major much more, but I think I must go to bed rather than finish it now.

Thursday 10 September 2009

Ears Today - 2009-09-09

A number of people on twitter had spotted that today's date had lots of nines in it, and therefore suggested listening to nine ninth symphonies. If it was a weekend I'd probably have done so, but on a work day it wasn't practical.

I could have made a better stab but, truth be told, I was a little tired this morning (owing to staying up late into the early hours for Plinth-a-lele) so I totally forgot on the bus to work and was instead accompanied by a nice fourth symphony (Tchaikovsky's with Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic).


On the way home it was back to the Economist (I'm nearly only a week behind now, though given the new issue is out tomorrow.....).


Once home it was another run for Jansons' Bavarian Tchaikovsky four (since there hadn't been quite time to finish it before Plinth-a-lele started).


This was followed by my stab at the ninth symphonies. Perhaps my favourite ninth, though I love so many of them so much, is Schubert. And there are many wonderful ones to choose from: Mackerras, Furtwangler, Jochum, Giulini, Bernstein, Rattle, Kleiber and many more. However, on the suggestion of @ViolaMaths and others, I gave Boult and the LPO a try thanks to Spotify (I do have a Boult recording but it's from the 30s and the sound is dire). The result of this recording is pretty impressive, and thoroughly deserving of the great recordings marque.


@BBCMusicMag recommended Harnoncourt's recording with the Concertgebouw. Sadly I didn't have time, but I've tracked it down on Spotify and will listen before too long.

Then it was another viewing of Plinth-a-lele (this time round, i.e. not live, the internet stream suffered not the ghost of an interruption).

Finally, while ironing my shirt for the morning, and before going to bed, it was back to the economist.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Ears this week (or more) - 2009-08-31 to 2009-09-08

Owing to overwork with my Fringe venue duties, too much festival going last week, and illness, I've not written up the ears for far too long. Here's what they've heard lately.


The Ears really should have been catching up with their Economist on the way to work. However, since I was feeling under the weather, something altogether lighter in tone was required.


I therefore continued with the second series of Radio 4's Bleak Expectations. Series three, which was recorded recently, can't come soon enough.

Then it was off to the Usher Hall to hear Donald Runnicles conduct Webern, Brahms and Strauss (review here).

Once home, it appeared I'd not yet had my Runnicles fix for the day, so I gave his Prom another listen: Adams' Slonimsky's Earbox, Mozart's K466 concerto with Wosner and Strauss's Sinfonia Domestica.


Tuesday had a Strauss feel to begin with. First in the form of Fabio Luisi's Prom with the Staatskapelle Dresden and their performance of the Alpensinfonie. It didn't really grab me so, thanks to Spotify, I put on Kempe's attempt with the same orchestra for comparison. Much more like it.


Then it was some Radio 4 comedy on the iplayer, first legal send-up Chambers then episode two of the new series of That Mitchell and Webb Sound


I finished off the day with a little more from the fabulous new Furtwangler/Berlin box. I've heard some of these before, but they've never sounded so good, but then access has never before been granted to the master tapes. My listening included Mendelssohn's Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, Beethoven's violin concerto with Menuhin, Bach's suite BWV1068 and Schubert's Unfinished symphony.



Wednesday began with the Brahms double concerto in a recording from Bernstein and the Vienna Phil with Kremer and Maisky (prompted in part by hearing it again at the Runnicles concert).


The remainder of the journey to and from work was concerned with a futile effort not to get any further behind with the Economist audio edition. After this came two concerts: Carolyn Sampson singing Bach at Greyfriars Kirk (review here) and Metzmacher conducting the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in Webern's Passacaglia, Berg's violin concerto with Tetzlaff, finishing with Brahms' fourth symphony (review to follow).

When I got home it was back to the Furtwangler box for a slightly more dramatic take on Brahms four.



Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic took me to work and back with Sibelius's third and fifth symphonies (very fine recordings). After which it was back to the Economist (still absurdly far behind). Things were rounded off by a concert from Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists featuring JC Bach's Es erhub sich ein Streit, part one of Handel's Israel in Egypt and Bach's cantatas BWV130, BWV19 and BWV50.


Friday kicked off with more Economist (indeed, finally finishing off the 15th August issue, so still massively behind). There was time though for a brief interlude from Mendelssohn's fourth symphony care of Bernstein and the Israeli Philharmonic.


Once home, I gave Jansons' new disc with the Concertgebouw a spin. A two CD set, it comprises Bruckner's third and fourth symphonies (and given how well he did the latter with the Bavarians last year, it promised to be good).


It did not disappoint and renders baffling the sole Amazon review that complains of a lack of fire. Unfortunately, the Ears were about to get an object lesson in lack of fire from Actus Tragicus.


Saturday kicked off with some of CD review (including a first listen to some of Rattle's new Brahms cycle, which was a little unimpressive).


Prompted by someone on twitter, I thought I'd give Gardiner's Brahms another go. But, after a movement or so, I was as unimpressed as ever so I abandoned it.


This was followed by Gardiner on altogether safer ground: volume twenty of his Bach cantata series with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. I opted for BWV144 and 84. Then it was back to the Jansons disc for Bruckner four, which was every bit as impressive as the third.


Lastly, before dashing off to the Usher Hall to hear a stunning Dream of Gerontius from Elder and the Halle, there was just time for disc eight of Jansons' Shostakovich cycle. It features symphony nine with the Oslo Philharmonic and ten with the Philadelphia Orchestra.


On returning home, I just had to relive some of the concert with my hasty interval purchase - Gerontius by the same forces on CD.


Sunday was similarly dominated by Gerontius. After a full listen to the Elder CD, it felt like a comparison to my previous favourite, Oramo and the CBSO, was needed.


There was time for little other listening, save the fabulous fireworks concert.



Monday kicked off with the 22nd August issue of the Economist (so still two weeks behind, then).

The evening's listening was dominated by the new Rattle/Berlin Brahms cycle. After Saturday's CD review I was worried. And while the first, in particular, took some getting going, there was plenty of drama on hand. The second was especially impressive (there wasn't time for three and four).


Tuesday saw a very light day for the Ears. Travelling to and from work it was an Economist only zone. Once home I discovered another Jansons/Bavarian disc on the doormat, this time including the Tchaikovsky's first piano concert (with Bronfman) and the fourth symphony.


I've sometimes found his Oslo Tchaik a little tame. This, if any criticism were made, is too much the other way. White hot wouldn't quite do it justice.

That was all apart from the glories Plinth-a-lele in the small hours of the morning. If you weren't there, or haven't watched it online, do so now.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

A nice bit of spectacle

It's six years since I last attended the Edinburgh International Festival fireworks concert.

For those not counting, that was in 2003. We'd just seen the climax of the stunning Ring cycle that effectively finished off Scottish Opera. It was a tight timing to get from the Festival Theatre down to the Ross Bandstand. We forced our way through the crowd that was already swamping the mound, still clutching the remnants our Gotterdammerung interval picnic. Finally we secured our seats and waited. And waited. And waited.

The timings, it turned out, were a little more elastic than originally planned. You see, back then the fireworks concert used to take place on the Saturday, after the last concert, not on the Sunday as is now the case. Gotterdammerung, with its teatime start, finished just about in time. Over in the Usher Hall, where the Scottish Chamber Orchestra were performing an obscure Rossini opera - Zelmira (one of many funded by Peter Moores), things were a little different and it ran much later than they thought it would when the programme was being compiled. Of course, festival goers will remember that the over-running final concert was something of a hallmark of the McMaster tenure. Anyway, it was quite a long way beyond 10.30 by the time orchestra and chorus had been got into place ready to play. It can be no co-incidence that 2004 occasioned the shift to 9pm on the Sunday, with no other events that day.

However, even though we had to sit and wait in the rain (and it rained a lot), even though one of the stage lights was faulty and shone perpetually in my eyes, it was a staggering spectacle, finishing with Handel's stunning Zadok the Priest. One felt particularly sorry for the chorus, who, unlike the orchestra, were not covered and got very wet. They were given flimsy plastic ponchos this year, and possibly then, I don't recall (they certainly got wet though).

I haven't ventured back since, often because the music hasn't leapt out at me. However, this year it was a celebration of Handel and a nearly identical programme to 2003.

Things kicked off fairly promptly after a number of test flares (not sure what they could be testing the that needed four goes). Perhaps it was simply the art of building up suspense. Matthew Halls, last week encountered in Greyfriars Kirk, took to the podium to conduct the SCO.

At the front was a young girl who had won a competition to press the button to kick things off. Or, as seems more likely, to send a signal to the control box to start things off. And what a start it was (if not perhaps the start the girl was expecting, leading to the PR disaster of tears). Over the tension building opening of Zadok the Priest smoke poured over the battlements of the castle and yellow lights illuminated it. Then with the chant of "Zadok the Prist" from the chorus came the first volley of fireworks. Then, as the work surged into its third stage with "God save the King" even more spectacular missiles exploded overhead. The co-ordination between music and pyrotechnics was exceptional. The more impressive given that to time it right they must have to press the button, or the computer must press the button, several seconds before to give the rocket time to get into place ready to explode on cue.

After that came the Music for the Royal Fireworks and the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. Between each work, and sometimes between sections, Halls paused, apparently waiting for the cue that they were ready to proceed with the next fusillade. The grand finale came with the Halleluja Chorus. It was great visual spectacle of the highest order, from the fabulous waterfall of sparks cascading down the cliff that the castle sits on, to the vast volleys of fireworks exploding overhead one on top of another.

You may at this point, or long before this, be thinking that's all very well, but a picture is worth a thousand words. And it certainly would be. But while I did take my camera, I didn't take any. As ever, I feel that if you're trying to take pictures you miss seeing the actual event, and it was too fantastic for that. Fortunately, the Scotsman have taken some (sadly not of the waterfall).

As time progressed, the air became ever thicker with gunpowder, and we got hit with ever more shrapnel (which only added to the drama), there was the odd thought of what this must cost and what it does to the environment. But it's only once a year, and for a show like this it has to be worth it. (Incidentally, it occurs to me that some overzealous health and safety person with no proper understanding of risk management may read this paragraph and conclude that it must be stopped. On the off chance you are, contact me and I'll bring my engineering degree to bear in explaining why that would be stupid. And, indeed, sure enough.....)

Of course, this is primarily music website, so I suppose a word or two about the musical performance is called for. Unlike in 2003, I was to the right of the orchestra. That meant that if I looked at the fireworks I couldn't see them. So, for obvious reasons, I didn't watch them. The sound, through, in all honesty, a rather unimpressive PA system, was nothing to write home about. Still, they played the works crisply and with plenty of energy, as the occasion requires.

It was a fabulous night and had me wondering why I haven't been for six years. Then again, spare a thought for the orchestra. The chorus got a break and could see quite a bit. I'm told some members of the orchestra were able to sneak off stage and watch parts they weren't involved with. But still, it does seem harsh that year after year most of them have to sit there providing the accompaniment for an exceptional show they don't see. Next year let's have one of Scotland's other bands do the honours and give free tickets to the SCO. One also wondered if the absence from the stage of one or two noticeable principals was because they were watching.

Monday 7 September 2009

One man, one plinth, one ukulele and one shameless plug


I've shamelessly plugged the artistic endeavours of my friends before, but usually in the form of a review. This is a preview, so a plug so shameless really has to go in the title.

It's like this: my friend Andrew Pugsley, actor, blogger, player of the ukulele and singer of funny songs (whilst playing said ukulele), applied for a spot on the fourth plinth. The what, some readers outside the UK might reasonably ask, in which case see here.

As luck, or rather unluck, would have it, he was offered the prime-time slot of 2am to 3am on Wednesday morning. Still, an opportunity to stand on top of a plinth in central London and amuse whomever may be passing by at the time doesn't come along every day, even at two in the morning.

So, what will you get if you stay up all night tomorrow and trek to what I'm reliably informed is likely to be a dry Trafalgar Square. Well, what you'll get is the glory of Plinth-a-lele!

Now, if you're not on Facebook you won't be able to see that (and who knows, even if you are and you're not friends with Andy, you may not be able to either). So, care of Where's Runnicles, here's a taster of what you can expect in the words of Mr P himself:

OK, first things first. This is a (very) late-night event, and anyone who comes along will have to contend with midweek night buses and extreme tiredness at work the following day.

But don't dwell on that. There'll only be one chance to see PLINTH-A-LELE, and you don't want to miss it!

A never-before-attempted fusion of plinth and ukulele, PLINTH-A-LELE is my contribution to Antony Gormley's One and Other Project. Throughout the summer, 2400 people will be taking an hour each upon Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth. And I'll be using my hour to entertain the pigeons and anyone else who comes along with some comic songs what I wrote myself - and, if times allows, a few rock classics reinterpreted for solo voice and ukulele!

PLINTH-A-LELE will be a moonlit celebration of life, love and small four-stringed chordophones. It promises to be an unusual, fun night out, providing anecdote material for years to come. The PLINTH-A-LELE ground staff are still finalizing details, but they are aiming to provide both FREE CAKE and a selection of umbrellas in case of rain. A state-of-the-art battery-powered PA system will also be in operation, allowing you to, um, actually hear me.

Ignore the Day-Nazis. Stay up late with Mr P.

Need more convincing. Okay, take his song about MP's expenses:

Need more, how about his homage to our dear departed friend the VCR:

I wouldn't miss it for the world. Okay, that patently isn't true since I'm not going, but that's only because I live hundreds of miles away and it's right in the middle of the week. If I lived in or near London, there's no question where I'd be tomorrow night/Wednesday morning. In solidarity, Where's Runnicles will stay up late at home and experience the phenomenon via webcam. You can too. I'll also be livetweeting it (I think we need a plinth-a-lele hashtag!). The only downside is that I'll have to provide my own cake.....

Sunday 6 September 2009

Powerful emotion, exceptional artistry - The Dream of Gerontius (Elder and the Halle)

Sometimes the best is saved until last, and in this year's Edinburgh festival, what I've managed to see and hear of it, anyway, it certainly has been. Certainly I was always keen to hear Mark Elder and the Halle play Elgar's most famous oratorio, The Dream of Gerontius, I've never heard it live before, but I wasn't expecting to be bowled over in the way I was. What I got was a performance that ranks amongst the most powerful and moving evenings I've had in the concert hall.


Right from the start, and the quiet opening passage on the violas, it seemed clear we were in for something special. Whatever section of the orchestra Elder exposed, they rose to the occasion splendidly, be it the rich and lush strings, the frenzied timpani or the crisp and powerful brass, capturing as fully the trumpets of heaven as anything on earth ever will. There was not a weak link to be found.

Of course, Gerontius is about much more than world class orchestral playing. Fine singing is needed too. Fortunately tenor Paul Groves was on hand to deliver a beautifully clear and poignant account of the title role. The role of the angel is more problematic, since comparison is instantly invited with Janet Baker, and her legendary recording with Barbirolli and Halle orchestra he helped rebuild. Alice Coote acquitted herself superbly, with power, beauty and delicacy too. Bass Iain Paterson was on excellent form too.

More importantly, all three of them seemed to share with perfect unity Elder's conception of the piece. They were joined by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, augmented by the National Youth Choir of Scotland. Now, the Festival Chorus has not always been what it was, but in the last couple of years it has regained much of its former greatness. It is true its sound may be a little female heavy, but what a wonderful sound it was that chorus master Christopher Bell had got from them, so beautifully ethereal. And yet at other times, ferocious with force. In the second part, as the demons, they brought a stunning range and variety to the repetitions of "Ha! Ha!".

Then came the big chorus of the Choir of Angelicals as they sang "Praise to the Holiest in the height". The impact was staggering. Elder brought his forces to an astonishing climax, holding it, his arms stretched out wide and trembling at the force, before dropping everything away and leaving just a low rumbling organ chord. And how wonderful it was to hear the Usher Hall's mighty organ getting a good workout.

Elder deserves great credit for the impact of the performance. In an unashamedly romantic reading he milked every available ounce of drama and passion from the score. He provided a sense of purpose and direction throughout. Never, did it drag, as can sometimes happen in the early moments. He elicited stunning dynamic contrasts from his great orchestra, which perhaps explains why it's never quite grabbed me on CD - this is the kind of score you need to hear in the flesh before you can really know it.

If I were to split one hair, it would be that the interval between parts one and two was a mistake, as it took a little while to build the emotion back up. How much better it would have been to have played it straight through. Still, in a performance that several times brought tears to my eyes, such quibbles hardly matter.

They were selling the CD in the interval (which features identical forces save the substitution of the Halle choir and Bryn Terfel in the bass role). Listening to it as I type, I can confirm it contains much of the magic. If you haven't heard it, buy it. If you were there, it's a superb memento of a magical evening and you should buy it to.

The festival should immediately book them to do The Kingdom and The Apostles in coming years, or, frankly, anything else.

Saturday 5 September 2009

Carolyn Sampson sings Bach at Greyfriars Kirk

One substantial backbone of this year's Edinburgh International Festival has been the series of Bach cantatas at Greyfriars Kirk. Since other commitments meant I had to be a little bit more selective with my booking this year, I chose only one, and it was obvious which it had to be: the Retrospect Ensemble on 2nd September. The reason was simple, they were joined by soprano Carolyn Sampson whom I first encountered last year at the Aldeburgh festival (the programme note indicates she made her Aldeburgh recital debut in 2007 but this appears to be a typo since she isn't in my programme book for that year). She did not disappoint.

The programme was interesting for comprising two secular cantatas, BWV 209 and 210. Also of note was the small size of the ensemble, just Matthew Hall, directing from the harpsichord, and single violinist, viola, flautist, oboist, cellist and bass.

They played nicely enough, though Hall didn't give the music quite the bounce I would ideally like. I'm not a huge fan of period instruments as a general rule, but it must be said that oboist Alexandra Bellamy got a glorious sound and it was a great shame she didn't feature in BWV 209.

The star of the show, however, was without question Sampson, who possesses not only a beautiful voice but also a stunning charisma. She is not one of those singers who stands stiffly and might as well be giving answers to directory enquiries.

As an encore we got Hall accompanying Sampson for Bist du bei mir, often attributed to Bach due to its inclusion in the notebook for Anna Magdalene Bach, but actually by Stolzel.

Sadly, neither Sampson nor the ensemble were well served by the acoustic of Greyfriars Kirk. True, it could have been much worse: they could have elected to use St Cuthbert's. However, it is overly reverberant and muddied the details. Every time Sampson's voice rose above a certain volume it suddenly became too big for the building. Why not use the Queen's Hall instead or, if it must be a church, use Cannongate? I suppose the location is better, but I'd rather the festival picked venues for how they sound. Failing that, why not simply use the Usher Hall and close everything except the stalls?

Whether it was the acoustic, the instrument, the player, or more likely, a combination of the three, flautist Rachel Brown was also rather disappointing, producing an airy and slightly mumbly sound. Added to that was the baffling decision to seat her off to one side for most of BWV 210, until she clunked noisily into place, dropping her music midway through an aria. Why she couldn't have been seated with the ensemble throughout isn't clear. (The theory that I don't like the period flue was put out the window by some divine playing in Gardiner's concert the following night.)

It also must be noted that £17 is pretty steep for an hour concert with unreserved seating (contrast this with the £10 price for McMaster's hour long series, in the acoustically superior Usher Hall with assigned seating).

Actus Tragicus: Another view

My brother has already given a more than accurate picture of this dreadful production – which joins an ever increasingly line of Mills programmed shows at the Edinburgh International Festival where gimmicky concepts trump narrative cohesion, meaningful characterisation and emotional engagement. All this one grows sadly resigned to. However, Actus Tragicus raises serious questions about Mills' artistic judgements on a new front.

Previously a number of the opera productions selected by Mills have suffered greater or lesser musical flaws (see my previous reviews of the Cologne Opera Capriccio in 2007 and Mahagonny in 2008). This performance was, as far as I can recall, the worst performance musically I have ever heard as part of the International Festival. It renders the term International laughable. The singing, the playing and the relationship between the two was verging on the amateurish. It was embarrassingly bad. Almost without exception, singers laboured through their arias, frequently falling out of time with the conductor, out of key, missing notes, snatching breath and so on and so on. Much of it was simply unpleasant to listen to. Instrumental players were more secure but there were still far too many bum notes (the recorders were particularly culpable) for a professional, let alone a supposedly international performance. Lastly, you had a conductor (Michael Hofstetter) who, leaving aside his complete inability to exert any drama into the playing, or to provide much variation in tempi or dynamics, was seemingly incapable of doing much to rescue the relationship between pit and stage.

Opera, most years a jewel in the McMaster festival programmes has been weak ever since Mills arrived, with the exception of last year's visit by the Mravinsky. There may be mitigating circumstances. First, the virtual collapse of Scottish Opera leaves Mills without a resident company to draw on. Second, the financial situation. If the explanation for such lousy productions as the Cologne Capriccio and Actus Tragicus lies with these two factors then the Festival Council needs to wake up, smell the coffee and work out a coherent strategy for the future. I say again what I said after Capriccio which is that I do not understand why the fundraisers do not start a syndicate to support bringing in or staging through some kind of local company new opera. But the dire musical quality of this performance (and the only slightly better level achieved by the Cologne Opera) forces us to question the artistic judgements of those responsible for bringing them to a supposedly International festival. Whichever factor was most responsible for this debacle, the Festival Council and the Festival Director have some serious thinking to do in advance of next year's programme.

Postscript: My wife, whose knowledge of the world of arts management is much greater than mine, tells me that it is unlikely in fact that anybody in management positions at the Festival would have seen this company before inviting them, and that they would have been going on reputation. If this is the explanation for having the Stuttgart company on the programme, then more probing consideration of how a reputation has been arrived at is required.

Tragic Acting (and much more) in Actus Tragicus

"That," remarked someone behind me, as we left the festival theatre, "was the worst thing I've ever seen at the Edinburgh International Festival". I'm not sure I'd go quite that far, after all, Three Sisters was pretty dire back in 2006.

Actus Tragicus was an attempt to take six Bach cantatas (BWV 178, 27, 25, 26, 179 and 106) and string them together into an opera. On the face of it, this is not necessarily a winning strategy but one should always reserve the benefit of the doubt until after witnessing any such attempt. That said, taking Bach works and trying to turn them into an opera is fraught with difficulty, as anyone who witnessed Glydebourne's attempt to stage the Matthew Passion will appreciate.

At least the Matthew Passion has a plot though. Actus Tragicus had none. And, for the first eight minutes or so, it had no music either. The curtain lifted to reveal a dolls house type set that resembled nothing so much as a cheap Ikea book case. One by one the cast filed on and went about their business. In silence. It was not compelling. After four minutes I was bored watching a transvestite ironing a shirt, by eight I was well and truly alienated. I was also thinking that they need to watch out that John Cage doesn't sue them.

In some respects silence might have been preferable. Staatsoper Stuttgart were not, I sincerely hope, at their finest hour. The orchestra, under Michael Hofstetter, was lacklustre at best, with misjudged entries or out of co-ordination with the singers at worst. A friend who loves his Bach far more than I do once remarked that the composer's work should swing. Certainly it should contain a good deal more drama and passion than Hofstetter was capable of locating. Things weren't hugely better with the singers, who were a fairly unimpressive bunch, and, as noted, not always well co-ordinated.

I may not have been utterly swept over by Gardiner's Bach (review to follow) but there was no faulting his sense of the dramatic, and the artistry of his ensemble was on quite simply another level to this.

They acted their way through the same eight minute day we'd had in silence over and over again (one character pulling day numbered calendar sheets off the wall and discarding them on the floor - at one point he flicked forward to 364 and I had an horrific vision of purgatory). Apparently it was all meant to say how monotonous life is. Well, perhaps for director Herbert Wernicke this was the case, but I don't personally spend my entire life doing the ironing, I manage to have plenty of fun and interest as well (incidentally, the counter-tenor in drag who spent an hour and a half attempting to iron a shirt would probably have better luck if they actually used the steam function). It was hard to feel sorry for the woman condemned to sweep the stairs for eternity since she evidently did so so badly.

On the other hand, if this was all about monotony, it was a little unclear why we had a woman perpetually (and with a staggering lack of passion) abandoning her wedding dress, which is surely not an everyday occurrence, even if you're Elizabeth Taylor, and to judge from her acting she was not.

By the end one even began to feel sorry for the lovers perpetually stuck between first and second base. Indeed, the only, what for want of a better word I shall call character, I felt the slightest empathy with, was the smartly dressed man who kept checking his watch. I knew precisely how he felt. Indeed, at one point he made the mistake of altering the clock on stage to the correct time, and we were reminded just how much more we had to endure. That it seemed to move so slowly indicates just how trying this was.

Other things were downright bizarre - the man who daily hung himself or the caricature secret agent. Then there was the woman in white mask and gloves who seemed to signify death. One kept hoping she might actually become significant in a dramatic sense. She did not.

The whole mess seemed nicely summed by the man who spent the whole time going round measuring things with his folding ruler (a beautiful piece of engineering which he then proceeded to break) who, at one point, sang:

They go, indeed, into God's House
And there perform their superficial duties,
But does this make a Christian?
No, hypocrites can do the same.

It was a verse loaded with irony. You can, Messers Mills, Wernicke and Hofstetter, string a load of music together and get some people on stage to sing and play it, but as you comprehensively proved this evening, that most certainly does not make it opera. To steal from Blackadder, it was much like a broken pencil: utterly pointless.

Applause was, initially, decidedly lukewarm. If I was cynical I would suggest there were plants or friends in the audience, since a few moments later things were bouyed by loud a few very enthusiastic wolf-whistlers. Still, amongst us five, there was a rare unity of opinion.

(Actually, my mildly narcoleptic sister does note one positive: you can fall asleep and wake up at any point without feeling at all lost. There are few shows about which this can be said.)

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Here's Runnicles with Webern, Brahms, Strauss and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

It's been three years since Donald Runnicles last stepped onto the podium in the Usher Hall. In the intervening time his star has risen (including his appointment to Deutsche Oper Berlin) so you might have expected his return to be standing room only. Certainly on the basis of musical quality it should have been, however there were a surprising number of seats empty. Those who chose to be elsewhere missed out on something rather special.

In fairness, on the basis of the works selected, the programme didn't send a shiver down my spine when I first saw it. However, I've learnt to have a little faith in Runnicles' judgement and that faith was handsomely rewarded.

They began with Webern's Im Sommerwind, a piece I've only recently met through a live Jansons recording with the Bavarians. Runnicles' reading was something else, due in part to the inherently superior dynamics of a live performance over a recording. It was a beautifully textured reading, with an incredible lightness of touch. The orchestra played superbly, especially in the quieter moments (putting Zinman and his Tonhalle to shame). Principal flautist Rosemary Eliot played a very fine solo. Runnicles transitioned naturally between loud and soft. The result was atmospheric and vivid and an orchestral world that, in this early Webern, is not a million miles from Strauss.

Webern was followed by Brahms and his double concerto for cello and violin. The soloists were the relatively young Baiba Skride (violin) and Jan Vogler (cello, often showing his pedigree as a pupil of Heinrich Schiff), both were technically excellent but brought no shortage of emotion. They were also a very well balanced and complimentary pair, something that is not always the case and can be a pitfall in such works. Together with Runnicles' sensitive accompaniment, they made a powerful case for the concerto, finding the drama and yearning that eluded Zinman in his Brahms on Thursday. Runnicles never fell into the trap of heavy stodgy Brahms either. Instead we got a crisp reading, with the orchestra playing at their best.

After the interval came Strauss's Don Quixote. I can sometimes find Strauss's tone poems a little heavy or unengaging. Quixote isn't one I know, and in many ways I'd probably have preferred something like the Alpensinfonie. However, Runnicles had his reasons: the work took full advantage of Vogler's presence with its prominent part for solo cello, so much so it could almost be described as a concerto. He was complimented by principal violist Scott Dickinson who, representing Quixote's squire, has almost as prominent a role, and carried it of brilliantly. As with the Webern, it was exquisitely textured and coloured, vivid, no more so than with the sheep, and didn't drag as Strauss sometimes can. Much of the time Runnicles showed of his control of this fine orchestra, bringing a light touch. At others, he brought out the full excess of the orchestration, up to and including the double wind machines.

Of course, with any programmatic work, good notes are important. Tim Ashley's started off well enough, but after The Knight's Vigil (with particularly fine playing by Vogler) they largely gave up describing what was going on in the orchestra, only what action was being represented. This was unhelpful and meant I lost track and didn't catch up again until Quixote's death. Not that it mattered much, when there were such wonderful sounds to listen to, but it would have been nice to be sure which ones were The Ride through the Air, which The Voyage in the Enchanted Boat and which The Combat with the Two Sorcerers. But it wasn't enough to mar an exceptional evening of music.

The audience certainly agreed and loudly showed their appreciation. This is a partnership that will surely go on to do great things; together they can hold their own with the best orchestras in the world. Scotland is going to be an exciting place to live over the next few years. Those in Edinburgh who missed out will have another chance to hear them in action on 11th October when they perform the first symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler. It promises to be an unmissable even.

The concert was being taped for broadcast (however it doesn't appear on the Radio 3 page concerning the festival - I think the BBC may be planning a week of programming around Runnicles first concert as chief conductor in October, that would also explain why we've yet to hear February's Symphony Fantastique). If the BBC are reading this, how about sharing some broadcast dates.

One final note - it appears I was inaccurate when I berated the Usher Hall staff for not putting up signs in the dress circle to indicate which doors are for which numbers. Indeed they have put up temporary signs printed on paper. However, with a level of incompetence that frankly beggars belief, these have been positioned such that they are effectively obscured when the doors are opened.

Tonight's programme had dropped from £3.50 to £3, perhaps because no text or translation was involved. Though it still seems an awful lot for fourteen pages.

Update 2009-09-01

Apparently, there were other reasons for the choice of programme, namely that Don Quixote and Vogler were both due to appear last year in the Dresden Staatskapelle concert for which the orchestra arrived but the instruments didn't.