Tuesday, 28 December 2010
Tannhauser at the Royal Opera, or in which it is proved that Wagner CAN be sung
It has to be admitted that the piece is a strange one. It is very definitely Wagner in transition. Indeed it is rather as if in writing it he worked through a whole litany of Germanic influences (shadows of Bach, Mozart and Schubert were all, I thought, present) as well as anticipating a variety of themes from his later work (the parade at the beginning of the final scene of Die Meistersinger, Amfortas's wound, even it seemed to me Wotan and King Marke in the character of Hermann). But the result is not a hodgepodge but something that at its best packs a real emotional punch – it is hard to think of anything quite comparable elsewhere in Wagner to the extraordinary chorale like section of Act Two following Elizabeth's intervention.
Monday, 6 December 2010
Too many puddings from the Harth-Bedoya and the RSNO, but some stunning trombone playing from Magnussen
Perhaps the cold weather and thick snow helped explain a rather thin Usher Hall turnout on Friday; doubtless some unfamiliar works on the programme didn't help. In truth, were it not for the rare opportunity to hear a trombone concerto, I'd have through twice about strapping on my walking boots.
Certainly the story of how former RSNO trombonist Bryan Free tracked down and reassemble Nathaniel Shilkret's trombone concerto, originally written for jazz legend Tommy Dorsey, is a fascinating one. Sadly, the story is rather more interesting than the concerto, whose main merit was that it provided a magnificent showcase for the talents of the orchestra's young principal Davur Juul Magnussen. He was very impressive, leaping around the full range of the range of the instrument: now muted, now glissandos, now playing three notes at once, in a wonderful rumbling sound generated by humming, playing and getting an overtone (something that Dorsey refused to play). And not a cracked note in sight, no mean feat. As a sometime, albeit infinitely less talented, trombonist myself, it's great to get the all too rare chance to hear the instrument shine like this. Sadly, beyond that, the piece was eminently forgettable, and it was quite easy to see why it had been forgotten. The boogie-woogie finale, complete with the sort of drum kit not often seen with a symphony orchestra, was fun, but it didn't seem in away way to follow from what came before.
Sunday, 5 December 2010
There's Only One Sydney Bristow - Why Alias is one of the great TV shows of all time
Recently I watched All The Time In The World, the 105th and final episode of Alias. It was, by my reckoning, the third time I've done so and, as on the previous occasions, it reduced me to tears. It was end of a couple of months immersed in the world of Sydney Bristow and Milo Rambaldi, watching every episode in sequence.
Then, a few nights later, I found myself chatting with a friend in the pub who complained that he won't buy TV shows from places like iTunes, in part because he only ever seems to watch episodes once. This is a slightly baffling view to me, given I regularly return to my favourite shows and watch them all through in sequence, and Alias has been one of them for most of the last decade. This is why.
Saturday, 4 December 2010
Where's Runnicles' favourite recordings issued in 2010
Last year I listened to Radio 3's annual Critics' Choice roundup edition of CD Review and thought two things - firstly that there was very little, with the exception of a superb double disc of Schubert from the Belceas, that really grabbed me, and secondly that I couldn't think of very much that I would have put into my own such roundup. 2009 was not, to these ears, a vintage year for CDs (actually, thinking about it, there was Audite's superb box of Furtwangler's RIAS recordings and the Beatles remasters too, but still).
How much difference a year makes - in 2010 there was a flood of superb recordings in the first few months alone and things didn't let up much thereafter. And yet, listening to CD Review again this morning, I find that none of my favourite discs have made the cut. This, then, provides the perfect excuse for a selection of Where's Runnicles' favourite discs of the year. Where possible, I've put them on this Spotify playlist so you can try before you buy (though not in the same order).
Friday, 3 December 2010
ENO premiers A Dog's Heart, or in which company resiliance and an excellent production are let down by a dog's dinner of a score
Since I have frequently had occasion to be highly critical of English National Opera in all departments in recent years let me start this review with the positives. The production is the most impressive and successful I have seen on the Coliseum stage since John Adams's Dr Atomic. The ensemble is the finest which has been seen at the Coliseum for a long time, and the whole feels suffused with the old Coliseum spirit which has been too long absent. It is impossible to fault either. But (knowing me you will have known there was a but coming) the trouble is that the work itself is a pathetic excuse for an opera, and one wishes that that spirit, and that production, could have been lavished on an artistic work deserving of them.
Alexander Raskatov's opera adapts Mikhail Bulgakov's novella The Heart of a Dog, banned during the author's lifetime and for years afterwards on account of its satires on Communist Russia in the 1920s, brilliantly explored in James Meek's instructive programme essay. The story sees a mongrel dog from Moscow operated on by a bourgeois doctor. He is given the testicles and pituitary gland of a drunk man. The dog then gradually becomes human, turns the doctor's life upside down to the point that he finally reverses the process. The story raises a variety of questions about the nature of humanity since the transformed Dog both lays claim to humanity, but shows himself to be capable of many of humanity's lowest acts.
Tuesday, 30 November 2010
The ENO Don Giovanni, or, in which Rufus Norris gets lost on the way to hell
It is rarely a good sign when one spends the overture at the opera trying to work out what on earth is going on on stage, and Rufus Norris's ENO Don Giovanni is no exception. We had what looked to me like two pieces of London Underground track with which various fluorescent jacketed men were fiddling (they may, or may not at this point have been wearing masks). Eventually, these (the girders not the men) rose upwards and a girl in a green dress wandered on. She was stopped (well I say stopped but this is one of the production's many unconvincing moments of movement) by these men, stripped of her dress which the Don then donned and off he went to rape Donna Anna.
This, believe it or not, is at the coherent end of the production's spectrum and from then on it goes steadily downhill. The root cause of this can be traced right back to the opening sexual act. If you decide that Donna Anna is to be raped before the intervention of the Commendatore, then you are also deciding that she is lying to Don Ottavio when she describes the scene later and you have to work out what her inner motivations are and how you are going to convey them. But this is just the very thing that Norris seems to have been completely incapable of doing. Instead, he has directed a series of individual numbers (and frankly there seems to have been little direction to most of those except that the protagonists should stand around dithering) which show a complete failure to think through what happens before and after. He has also taken the typical route of the director who is frightened by the music and filled up as many moments as possible with pointless business, balloons rise up and do a little dance in the scene between Elvira and the Don in Act One, the set whizzes around with pointless rapidity guided by an ensemble of demonic types who look as if they have got lost from the recent Faust, and the Act Two sextet is reduced to complete idiocy with Don Ottavio inexplicably undressing and Donna Anna doing some kind of crazed solo line dance. When we finally reach the lead-up to the descent into hell, Norris plays half-heartedly and ineffectively around with whether or not the Commendatore is visible to everybody, and has Iain Paterson writhing feebly and unconvincingly on the edge of a hole below which presumably is hell, before finally electrocuting him with a couple of feeble flashes from the gantry which turns out to have been hovering above the protagonists for this very purpose. Frightening it is not.
Saturday, 27 November 2010
The ROH Adriana Lecouvreur, or you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear (especially without your lead soprano)
When the Royal Opera's 2010-11 season was announced, fellow blogger Intermezzo commented acerbically that the company were taking a real risk casting a lead singer notorious for cancelling (Angela Gheorgiu) as the leads in an opera which is basically a vehicle for two stars. Having had experience of a Kaufmann cancellation before, I thought I would be very lucky to get both stars the night I happened to be going, and so it proved, as the posters outside announced that Gheorgiu had cancelled (explaining the furious expression on the face of the woman in front of me in the ticket collection queue).
However, as other commentators have already noted, I have never heard anything like the reaction which greeted the announcement of her withdrawal from the stage. We have heard from the stalls; I can only add that the reaction in the Amphitheatre was every bit as ferocious including sustained booing and shouts of “Again!”“Again!”. One presumes if the management has any sense they will think twice about engaging Ms Gheorgiu for any further productions.
Wednesday, 24 November 2010
Interview with Gregory Batsleer (Chorus Master of the SCO Chorus)
Way back in March, I had the chance to interview Donald Runnicles and it marked the launch of the Where's Runnicles podcast. I said at the time that I hoped it would be the first of many. The second has been a little while coming, but I hope you'll agree it's worth the wait.
Back in August, I met the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's new Chorus Master, Gregory Batsleer. In the interview, he talks about topics including how he got into singing, how he works with the choir and other ensembles, outreach, the choir's programme for this season and more. There's also some interesting discussion about their superb performance in Idomeneo at the Festival (the interview was recorded on the morning of the concert).
Tomorrow and Friday, those in Edinburgh and Glasgow will have the chance to hear the results of Batsleer's work when the SCO Chorus perform Handel's Messiah with the orchestra, conductor Andrew Layton and soloists including Christine Rice and Matthew Rose, so what better time to get an insight into what goes on behind the scenes.
Sunday, 21 November 2010
Superb Schuman and Brutal Beethoven from Storgards and the SCO
Somewhat inauspiciously, William Schuman is best known to me because whenever I import a new disc by Robert Schumann into iTunes and type his name it always wants to autocomplete it to Schuman because it comes first alphabetically and I have disc of his in my library meaning, annoyingly, I have to type Schumann out in full. I may soon add a second to it, having heard his fifth symphony played by John Storgards and the SCO. Scored for strings alone, it has in some respects a similar feel to works Tippett's concerto for double string orchestra (admittedly without the double) or even Ades' violin concerto in terms of the intensity. Each of the three movements ends where it began, giving a nicely circular feel. This is most strong in the extraordinary slow movement, starting soft and captivating before building to an intense climax and then fading away again. However, it was true of the work as a whole, both start and finish being driven and full of energy. The strings of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra were on top form for it.
This was followed by an even newer piece: the UK premiere of Albert Schnelzer's oboe concerto (an SCO co-commission). As a piece it didn't especially speak to me, feeling somewhat disjointed. Rarely did it seem to evoke its title of The Enchanter. At times, though, it was magical, such as in the delicate reintroduction of the orchestra after the first cadenza and also at several other points (mostly the quite passages). Elsewhere I found it a little too much of the whir-plonk school of composition and in particular the solo part (taken by Francois Leleux, also the dedicatee) a little screechy, or, put another way, I don't think it showed off the instrument half as well as did the solo passages in Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin the previous evening. Often after hearing a new piece, I find myself wishing I had some way to listen again but not this time, some very fine playing notwithstanding.
Saturday, 20 November 2010
Stéphane Denève and the RSNO do some Graffiti
Magnus Lingberg's Graffiti represents the biggest and most adventurous piece of programming so far in the RSNO's Ten out of 10 series, in that it was the feature work of the concert, having the entire second half to itself, and the largest piece to date. Contrast this with earlier efforts which have tended to be sandwiched into programmes built around big and popular works. The orchestra is, therefore, to be applauded.
I'm not hugely familiar with Lindberg's music, but Eric Sellen's programme note (whose contributions are, in my view, a weak link of the series) seemed to spend an excessive amount of time apologising for the choice of Graffiti to represent Lindberg. It seemed odd when reading it before the concert and odder still after the performance.
Monday, 15 November 2010
A musical tribute to Charles Mackerras
It's difficult to review this concert objectively. Charles Mackerras was probably my favourite conductor and, as I explained in my tribute to him, he provided me with many unique musical experiences and shaped my tastes massively. This concert, which comprised many works with which he was closely associated, frequently brought those things to mind as well as the gap that he leaves behind. It was an extremely emotional experience, but I expect that would have been the case had the players come on and sat in silence for three hours. To these ears, though, just as well that they didn't!
The programme was divided between two London orchestras with whom Mackerras enjoyed long relationships. The first half, or rather, the first third, was given over to the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment. Appropriately they played the Handel's firework music. Appropriate because back before period performance was cool, Mackerras unearthed, premiered and recorded, the original wind arrangement. Sadly that wasn't what we got, but it did have a satisfyingly rasping quality and as much of a richness as you could get without the absurd numbers of wind instruments called for. In the hands of Steven Devine it also benefitted from not feeling routine or twee, as it too often can. It wasn't perfect though, and while it's true that playing period horns without without cracks or fluffs is tricky, the sheer quantity was far, far more than should have been the case.
They were then joined by soprano Mhairi Lawson, standing in for Rebecca Evans, for two Handel arias. Lawson possessed a nicely toned voice, though it was fairly small and needed slightly more sensitive accompaniment than Devine delivered. Of the two, Let the bright seraphim from Samson was the most impressive, not least for the trumpet solos that David Blackadder delivered alongside Lawson.
Sunday, 14 November 2010
Stéphane Denève's Fantastique (and Frank Peter Zimmerman's pretty exceptional too)
The headline item of this weekend's RSNO concerts always seemed set to be pretty special. Conductor Stéphane Denève always seems most at home with extravagant and dramatic pieces, or pieces by French composers. Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique is both and thus expectations were high. They did not disappoint. Not only was there plenty of excitement but also some exceptional playing from the orchestra, both as an ensemble and in solo passages, especially Zoe Kitson on cor anglais in the third movement and principal flute Katherine Bryan (whose playing once again reminded me that I should check out her new disc).
Denève provided a reading full of contrast, both in volume and texture, such as the super pianissimo string playing that began the Dance of the Witches Sabbath after mighty conclusion of March to the Scaffold. He did well at holding back the full power of the orchestra in the opening movements, instead building the tension continually; this meant that when they let loose in the last two movements the effect was all the more devastating. There were plenty of nice touches along the way. Perhaps, he read my review of Runnicles' account a little while back, which had superb placement of offstage forces. Similarly, it was impossible, from where I was sitting, to spot the offstage oboe, which had a nicely etherial effect; ditto the bells at the end. It was the kind of performance to have you struggling to sit still, whether in those frantic closing passages or earlier during the ball, which really did dance.
In most concerts this would be sufficient to put the rest of the programme into the shade. Not so here. The evening had opened with another in the RSNO's Ten out of 10 series of new music. Young Scottish composer Helen Grime has impressed me when I have heard her work before, and Virga was no exception. In a spoken introduction she listed Ligeti and Knussen among her influences, which perhaps explains this. The piece takes its name from precipitation which never reaches the ground and, in the space of six minutes, says so much that one to some extent regrets that Denève was joking when he suggested they would play it six times to compensate for the length. It was both turbulent and extremely vivid; some music, such as Sibelius, always fills my mind with images and this piece seems to fall into that same category. She also made wonderful use of the orchestral textures at her disposal, this was especially apparent as she built her forces back up following a passage for first violins alone.
Sunday, 31 October 2010
The Spaghetti Western Orchestra, or, excuse me while I massacre this innocent cabbage
I think I better begin this review with a confession. Despite the fact that I spend my life teaching and researching the United States of America, I don't think I have ever actually watched one of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. Other westerns yes (Rio Bravo being one of my favourites) but not one of his. I mention this because I suspect this show has an awful lot of in jokes in it that I wasn't completely getting (judging by the hysterics of the gentleman on my right).
The Spaghetti Western Orchestra show is frankly pretty nearly indescribable. Nevertheless, in the interests of you, our loyal readers, I shall attempt it. If you think of something which is a cross between an episode of The Goon Show, the Frasier episode where he recreates an old-style radio drama and the Edinburgh Fringe show where the Australian band Blue Grassy Knoll played live accompaniments for Buster Keaton movies, you may approach somewhere close to this madness.
Orchestra in this case denotes five multi-tasking performers on, according to the publicity (and I think it is pretty fair), about 100 instruments ranging from the obvious (for a western) trumpet and drums, to the slightly more unusual bassoon (a lovely reminder of what a gorgeous instrument it is), to the frankly downright bizarre (sound of walking manufactured by a boot and a packet of corn flakes). This is as much a visual as an aural spectacle.
Mitch Benn and the Distractions - for goodness sake go and see them!
The last time I saw Mitch Benn live was the better part of a decade ago. He was the only memorable one of three comedians booked one evening at the Bristol university bar where I worked. I went up to him afterwards and made a complete fool of myself by telling him how much I liked his work on the 11 O'Clock Show. The few of you who actually remember that, most notable for having introduced Ali G to the world and a hilarious sketch (in very poor taste) about Henri Paul, will remember that he had nothing to do with it. Of course I meant The Now Show, a mainstay of Radio 4's Friday night comedy slot, for which Benn writes two satyrical songs each week.
How then, would this back catalogue of songs, which can slip out of date faster than, well, some of the celebrities or news stories they're mocking, fare in the concert hall. The answer is very well indeed. In large part this is because much of the set was unfamiliar to me, despite being a pretty avid listener to The Now Show. They had several things in common: they were funny, often very, very funny, generally fairly timeless and well programmed. In some ways it was a bit like the difference between the main body of Tom Lehrer's catalogue and the That Was The Year That Was stuff.
Friday, 29 October 2010
ENO revives Miller's La Boheme, or, About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters
This is a production in which a master has been at work. Towards the conclusion of Act 4, there is a moment when the other friends leave Rudolfo and the dying Mimi alone. All the text gives a director to work with is Colline's advice to Schaunard that while he is selling his overcoat, his friend should leave the apartment also. Miller, aided by Isabella Bywater's versatile set has Schaunard close the flat door, walk slowly down the stairs, and then just sit, alone and somehow hopeless at the bottom. Just that simple choice adds a telling emotional layer to the story.
The whole second half of this show (Acts Three and Four) is an object lessen in management of relations between singers and overall stage pictures. Telling image follows telling image, like a series of old paintings capturing moment after moment. The clever placing of Mimi in the alley, overhearing Rudolfo confess to Marcello his conviction that she is dying, the counterpoint of Mimi and Rudolfo leant against the side of one building, barely touching, while the other pair argue across from them. Miller also understands the value of stillness. Unlike so many opera directors (but interestingly similar to McVicar's Rigoletto at the Royal Opera) he is not afraid just to have his characters stand or sit there and sing to each other, but, and this is the crucial thing, that stillness develops naturally from the characterisation – it is never lifeless or dull, but compellingly effective.
To execute Miller's masterful design, ENO has assembled their best all round cast so far this season. Not everybody is perfectly cast but the singing is in the main excellent and there are some real standouts both as actors and singers. Of the two leads, Gwyn Hughes Jones (Rudolfo) is consistently superb. He has a ringing, yet also lyrical sound voice, and his diction is pretty much spot on. I was less convinced by Elizabeth Llewellyn, winner of the inaugural Voice of Black Opera competition in 2009, here making her house debut. To my ear there is an odd contained quality to the voice that sometimes makes the sound produced a little off-putting, and some phrases sounded a little snatched. That said there is potential there, she has the stamina for the part, there were some moments of beauty and giving young British singers a chance is one of the things ENO should be doing. Jones was well matched by Roland Wood's Marcello, especially in their third act scene where they discuss Mimi's condition, but again he had a slightly under par partner in Mairead Buicke's Musetta. All eyes should really be dazzled by her in the cafe scene, but her presence (both physically and vocally) was not quite commanding enough. Among the other supporting characters, I particularly want to note George von Bergen's Schaunard. His characterisation is beautifully judged throughout, diction excellent, tone of voice commanding. I hope we shall see more of him.
Tuesday, 19 October 2010
The Problems with Ping
Everybody, it seems, must do social networking these days. Companies seem to think it's obligatory to get in on the action - I could, if I was so inclined, become a fan of my toothpaste on facebook. Quite why on this earth I would want to is beyond me. The point, though, is that companies often seem to be doing social networking simply because they think they have to, rather than because they have something to say or there is a demand for them to say it. I've experienced this with two voluntary organisations I'm involved with and for which I now run the twitter and facebook accounts. In both cases it came up that this was something we should possibly be doing, though most people had no idea what the point might be.
What does this have to do with Apple's Ping? Well, having played with it a bit, it very much feels like there was a meeting a Apple where someone said (doubtless because people may have complained there are no social features in iTunes) that they should add social networking. And that sentiment is right: iTunes is ripe of the addition of such features. My iTunes music library, which runs to over 137GB, contains thousands of albums, painstakingly ripped so that I can have easy access to the better part of my library when I'm on the move. How great would it be, with just a few clicks, to share one of my favourite discs, tracks or artists with my twitter or facebook friends, or to blog it. Big brotherish though it is, it might also be cool if iTunes saw, say, that I have dozens of discs featuring the London Symphony Orchestra, and gave me the option with a single click to follow their updates.
Bells are Ringing, or, A Star Turn takes the Stage in Southwark
London seems to be developing a nice little line in revivials of neglected musicals in small venues, or possibly this has been going on for years and I've only just woken up to it. On the heels of the magnificent Jermyn Street Theatre revival of Anyone Can Whistle at Easter, comes a revival of Bells are Ringing at the Union Theatre in Southwark. Apparently, so the lady behind the bar told me, the theatre has been running for thirteen years, but until I came across the details of this show on the web, entirely by accident, I had never even known it existed. The management may rest assured I shall be keeping a close eye on their programmes from now on.
Bells are Ringing is a 1956 musical with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (better known to me at any rate as the geniuses behind the same element of Bernstein's neglected gem Wonderful Town) and music by Jule Styne (better known to practically everyone for his collaboration with Sondheim on Gypsy). Inspired by the real life Mary Printz and her Belles Celebrity Answering Service it tells the story of what happens when Ella Peterson (Anna-Jane Casey) becomes too involved in the life of her client Jeff Moss (Gary Milner).
As regulars will know I place a high value, probably higher than others, on the book of a musical and there are plenty of gems here, not least because of Comden and Green's wealth of playful cultural references. To give just two there is Sandor's fake record company, rumbled by the delivery boy, who points out that all these customers keep ringing up for Beethoven's Tenth Symphony, and, my particular favourite, Ella's former employees, the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company. The songs include several which are now established standards, such as The Party's Over) and the wonderfully playful Is It a Crime? about Casey's problematic moral choices. This richness, and Casey's mesmeric performance, means that one is drawn past the fact that the minor characters are a bit underwritten in places (it would have been lovely to have had more of Sandor and Sue's disastrous romance) and the whole situation around Ella's falsified identity is just that little bit too easily resolved. As a character, Ella recalled to me both Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town and Flora Metsouaris in that neglected gem Flora, the Red Menace both of which are ultimately that bit more rounded as complete shows.
Sunday, 17 October 2010
How to follow, even top, a star-studded performance of Don Giovanni - Brönnimann and the SCO provide the answer
I'm not sure how Saturday's concert came about, whether it was a genius idea cooked up when thinking about what could possibly follow the previous week's blockbuster season opener, or whether it owed more to a need to fit in with Glasgow's minimalism festival which is happening this weekend. Most likely it was a combination of the two. Regardless, Saturday's programme (Friday in Glasgow) was a triumph, what a pity then that the Queen's Hall was so empty, but then with three of the four works by living composers this was, perhaps, to be expected.
There was a strong minimalist flavour running through the evening, though I don't think such a tag quite applies to everything. The stronger theme was the fact that all three composers hailed from America. Conductor Baldur Brönnimann, whom I last heard presiding over ENO's musically stunning production of Ligeti's La Grand Macabre, opened the programme with Ives' Three Places in New England. He started as he meant to go on, providing a tightly controlled reading and drawing some impressive playing from SCO. The minimalist chords on which the St Gaudens was built were followed by the rambunctious Putnam's Camp, depicting the mind of a child at a picnic, Brönnimann himself leaping around the stage with every bit as much energy and mischievousness. The piece displays Ives' love of quotations and these were highlighted nicely. Equally fine was their account of the final place, The Housatonic, a riverside walk with his wife. Brönnimann for the most part displayed a strong understanding that you do not need to play loudly in the Queen's Hall, all too rare (though a couple of the sustained climaxes were a bit too much).
Ives was followed by John Adams. The Wound Dresser combined many elements that would be familiar to fans of Adams' work: low, in some ways repetitive and minimalist string chords, an electronic synthesiser blending cleanly with the acoustic elements, and on top of this a superbly chosen and powerfully set text. The text in question was Walt Whitman's intense and harrowing The Wound-Dresser (or, rather, selections from it), the reminisces of a civil war surgeon. In the solo part, baritone Christopher Maltman filled the hall with an effortless and chilling power, while beneath him Brönnimann ensured the accompaniment was perfectly judged. Repeated and mournful trumpet fanfares, beautifully delivered by Peter Franks, only heightened the emotion. The result was emotionally devastating, such as when the surgeon reflects he'd give his life to save one of his patients, or at any number of other points.
Saturday, 16 October 2010
Alexander Goehr's Promised End, or in which your correspondent confesses to uncertainty
I set out for the Linbury Theatre this evening with low expectations. The reviews for English Touring Opera's world premiere production of Alexander Goehr's Promised End had been uniformly dire, and my doubts were increased when close inspection of various interviews with the composer and the cast list on the ROH website revealed that he had excised two of the protagonists whose journeys most engage me (Kent and Albany) from the action. At the interval I was on the whole indifferent to the piece, though not desperately bored as many critical colleagues clearly were. By the end I was in a great state of uncertainty about it.
The first, most important, and clearest thing to be said about this work is that it isn't Shakespeare's King Lear. That is it is absolutely fatal to go to this with some kind of expectation that it will be the play only sung. But nor is this a hatchet job of the kind frequently perpertrated by modern directors on Shakespeare (and indeed many other dramatic masters). It would perhaps be most accurate to regard this as Alexander Goehr's King Lear. That is the piece focuses on those elements of the original which are of most interest to the composer. This makes for a most odd experience if you know the play well as I do having studied it at A-Level. It is quite impossible not to be aware of everything that has been omitted and to some degree I think I found my preferred focus in the play at war with Goehr's. This is frustrating, and when combined with Goehr's unforgiving musical language can wear one down (I was somewhat so by the end of the first half) but boring is really not the right word.
The next thing you have to be prepared for is the stylistic approach. I wish I knew more about Japanese theatre, and the programme is not especially helpful on this point but there is a stylisation to the acting – the most obvious aspect of which is the box of sand which each performer steps in (at least in the first act) before entering a scene. At least initially this makes a lot of it feel rather artificial, but as with other aspects of the piece I did feel the effect gained more punch as the opera went on.
Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák from Urbański, Lill and the RSNO
It was a little odd, perhaps, that for this second in the RSNO's great concerto series, the rather effective decision to place the concerto at the end of the concert, as happened with the Emperor two weeks ago, wasn't repeated. After all, the concert was marketed as John Lill Plays Tchaikovsky, and certainly the famous first piano concerto will have been the primary drawn for many. Then again, given the performance it received, this was not as much a handicap as might have been the case.
The evening began, however, with Beethoven's Coriolan overture. Unfortunately, this proved a damp squib in the hands of young conductor Krzysztof Urbański (more than giving Robin Ticciati a run for his money in the 'how young can the conductor look' stakes despite actually being older, though with the leather jacket clad publicity shot he is perhaps trying for a different image). His style on the podium was very odd, marked by extremely jagged and angular movements. He clearly wanted abrupt chords and pauses, but if this was intended to engender suspense and excitement it failed. Most of all, he needs to learn how to hold a pause to maximum effect, or indeed, any effect other than sucking the life out of the music. When I tweeted to this effect, someone replied that it was Coriolan, what did I expect? Not a bit of it: in my view, this is a thrilling piece, or can be. This is a ludicrously unfair comparison, but Furtwangler, knew how to hold a pause to the point where you are on the edge of your seat with tension before crashing in with such force as to knock you right out of it. It wasn't just about pauses though, the whole thing felt dull and lifeless. More fair would be to note that even a then 24 year old Daniel Harding was capable of delivering an account fizzing excitement.
Urbański seemed much more fluid and at ease in Tchaikovsky's famous and rather overplayed first piano concerto. In addition, he got some impressive and exciting moments in the bigger climax. In the softer passages, though, he was less persuasive. In the solo part, John Lill was okay, but next to Paul Lewis's masterclass in clarity and poetry two weeks ago he was rather bland. More critically, at many of the quicker tempi in the outer movements, his playing became rather muddy, almost as though his fingers weren't quite quick enough. He was much more impressive in the slow movement, displaying both a nice delicacy and a sparkle. The major problem was familiarity. Here comparison with the Emperor is instructive. Both are so often-played, over-familiar, that artists really need to have something to say in order to stand out, otherwise they risk blandness. Two weeks ago Lewis and Deneve did; last night Lill and Urbański did not. That said, much the rest of the audience seemed far more convinced.
The Where's Runnicles Album of the Week - Terminal, by Peter Gregson
I realise it's been so long since I last did an Album of the Week that the very concept has taken on a massive dollop of irony; unfortunately, international festivals and the like have got in the way doing it as regularly as I had planned. And, to be honest, this one is a bit of a cheat. It's not Terminal isn't a superb album, it absolutely is; indeed it is one of the best I've heard this year and thoroughly deserves having the Album of the Week badge slapped on it. However, normally in these posts I make a passionate argument for why I think an album is so special and pick out a few of the great things about it.
I'm not going to do that for the very simple reason that I already have. Back in June, I wrote a review extolling its many virtues and rather than repeat myself, I'm simply going to suggest you read it if you haven't already.
What has changed since June is that Terminal is now widely available: as a lossless download from Bandcamp, from iTunes (if you prefer that sort of thing) and, most crucially from the point of view of this segment, on Spotify, meaning you can have a listen (though, as ever, if you find you love it, I'd urge you to buy it, as it's my understanding that the royalties paid by Spotify are pretty paltry). In some ways it's a pity that Steve Reich's Cello Counterpoint, hasn't made it to these new releases of the album. On the positive side it does mean the remaining six tracks are pure Gregson (with producer and co-composer Milton Mermikides). The result makes for interesting listen - much more introspective and consistent in style. The technically demanding and acrobatic Cello Counterpoint is a remarkable piece, and Gregson gave it a fine performance on the original (and one that deserves to see the light of day more widely), and yet one could strongly argue that Terminal is a better album without it, in the sense that it is a more artistically consistent statement; it has a little more of that sense of flow that makes for a really great album.
Friday, 15 October 2010
ENO's Radamisto, or Handel's Forgotten Masterpiece about Falling in Love with the Wall
English National Opera has some pedigree with Handel. David Alden began a revival of interest with a production of Ariodante which blew me away at the time but I found less convincing when I watched the DVD more recently. There was also more recently an excellent new production of Semele. Unfortunately, this particular Handel is another glass half empty for the company.
David Alden is an annoyingly unreliable director. He can be marvellous (his recent Janaceks here) or diabolical (his recent Peter Grimes). This production of Radamisto, originally produced at Santa Fe Opera two years ago, falls about midway between the two – that is it's annoying but not to the dangerous to one's blood pressure levels of the Peter Grimes. Essentially, Alden's concept here seems to be that Handel wasn't dealing with love between human beings, but love between human beings and the walls and floor. Either that, or something had gone badly wrong in construction and the singers were preventing the set from falling over. The result of this is pretty rapidly to suck the emotion out of the performance since characters even when singing to each other rarely seem to look at each other, not to mention the amount of time they spend rolling around on or dragging themselves across the floor. In the second act, Alden obviously felt the audience might get bored with this (I certainly was) and fell back on the old cliched solution of directors who can't cope with Handel, of adding lots of pointless business into every da capo aria so we don't have to listen. This presumably explains the dragon's head on the wall which periodically spouted flames, and the incredible bottomless bowl of wine that various characters kept drinking out of as they staggered around the stage looking for a wall to embrace.
Sometimes this kind of thing can be rescued by the musical performances, and to some extent that is true here. Delivery of numbers is generally very creditable, and sometimes outstanding. Others have rightly singled out the rich tone of counter-tenor, Lawrence Zazzo in the title role, Ailish Tynan in the trouser role of Tigrane settles down as things go on, James Gower stood in impressively for an indisposed Henry Waddington as Farasmane and Sophie Bevan is simply outstanding as Polissena. Unfortunately their collective vocal heroics are hampered by two problems: one of tempi, the other of ornamentation.
Thursday, 14 October 2010
The Royal Opera Revives Rigoletto, or, This is what it's all about
There are people who will tell you they cannot be doing with opera. They may perhaps suggest that it is unrealistic for people to sing about their emotions, or that it makes no sense that having been stabbed the heroine spend five minutes singing mournfully of her imminent death. I have never been one of those people. Yet there are times when I seem to have had a particularly lengthy run of serviceable, or indeed far from serviceable, evenings at the opera such that even I begin to wonder whether the magic has gone. And then you see a show like this and you remember that this is what great opera is like.
The programme book will tell you that this is the 6th revival of David McVicar's production, but I was seeing it for the first time, and frankly if I hadn't read the programme or reviews I doubt that I would have been aware this production had been around since 2001. It is fresh and sharp. I suspect one of the reasons for this is that it is not a production in constant conflict with the music (unlike so many others I could name). The set consists of a great sloping shiny wall, which forms the backdrop to the Duke's court (signaled by a suitably baroque chair) and from within which is formed the shabby, shadowy houses of Rigoletto and Sparafucile. It's quite simple, and very effective. Within this world McVicar (sustained by revival director Leah Hausman) creates a series of effective images: the sickening debauchery of the Duke's court, that court surrounding the desperate jester, the grim haunt of the assassin, and the final tragic tableau. I mention Leah Hausman incidentally, because this is an object lesson in revival directing (in notable contrast to the far less slick management of The Makropulos Case at the Coliseum a couple of weeks ago).
The design and direction then give this revival a good basis for success; when you add to that a pretty uniformly excellent cast and a conductor who knows what he is doing you clinch it. At the centre of the experience is Dmitri Hvorostovsky's Rigoletto. I am not completely convinced by McVicar's hampering him with a pair of crutches, but once you get used to the idea, Hvorostovsky increasingly rises beyond them. His singing is impressive throughout but what gives it the emotional power is the range, from mocking jester, to loving then tragic father. It's a great operatic performance.
Tuesday, 12 October 2010
Ticciati opens the SCO season with Don Giovanni
Last, but most certainly not least, among Scotland's three main orchestras, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra opened their season on Thursday and Friday with concert performances of Mozart's Don Giovanni. They had also chosen the occasion to pay tribute to their conductor laureate Sir Charles Mackerras. It was a fitting choice. Within the significant chunk of his epic discography featuring the SCO, which includes cycles of Brahms and Beethoven symphonies, two fine braces of late Mozart symphonies, some stunning Schubert, Mozart concerti with Brendel, and much more besides, by far the largest single chunk is occupied by his survey of Mozart's major operas. Between 1991 and 2005 they recorded all the Da Ponte operas (including both the Prague and Vienna versions of Don Giovanni) as well as Die Zauberflöte, Idomeneo, Die Entführung aus dem Serail and finally La clemenza di Tito. Picking through the various sets, which were often made in the run up to concert performances at the Edinburgh International Festival, reveals am impressive list of singers. In short, it would be difficult to deliberately programme a more fitting tribute to this great artistic partnership.
If Robin Ticciati, who has recently extended his contract with the SCO, was awed by stepping into these vast shoes, it was not apparent. He kept up a brisk pace, and yet it was not overly hurried (as, say, Daniel Harding's recording with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is). The playing of the orchestra was impeccable. Indeed, in a way it was almost invisible. That is not meant as a criticism, rather to say that the playing never upstaged the drama as a whole, not even the flamboyant David Watkin, once again doubling up very well on cello continuo; instead it was merely there, beautifully, in the background, supporting the overall drama perfectly. Indeed, so uniformly fine was it that, despite looking out for any exceptional flashes to single out, I found none, often a mark of an exceptional performance. Ticciati showed his pedigree with Glydnebourne Touring Opera, both in the emotion and humour he found, and also with his generally sensitive accompaniment of the singers.
Among a strong cast, Kate Royal stood out as with a moving and well acted Donna Elvira, so too Rafal Siwek's powerful Commendatore. Susan Gritton's Donna Anna, though nicely sung, wasn't quite in the same league. In the title role, Florian Boesch was generally excellent but at some of Ticciati's brisker tempi he lost his diction (especially during the champagne aria). I always feel Don Ottavio is a rather wet and thankless role, but Maximilian Schmitt turned in as persuasive a performance as I've heard. Vito Priante made for a fine Leporello, nicely capturing the oscillation between being pressed unwillingly into service and abetting the Don. Malin Christensson's beguiling Zerlina and David Soar's largely (and justifiably) dour Masetto rounded off the cast.
Monday, 11 October 2010
There's Runnicles, with Berlioz, Brahms and Beethoven
A while back, Donald Runnicles delivered a (sadly) still unbroadcast reading of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique that was absolutely thrilling and which made me appreciate just what a magnificent piece it is. I was reminded of this as he opened Thursday night's concert with another piece of Belioz, the overture from Béatrice et Bénédict. Many of the hallmarks of the earlier performance were present - there was precision, poise, drama and a lovely bounce to their playing. So much so that one longed to hear an entire Berlioz opera (and was once again tempted to pop over to Berlin to catch Les Troyens in December). But there was also something more. Once again the orchestra delivered a very impressive string tone - Runnicles may only have been in post a year, but I would argue that the ensemble's already fine sound is changing and improving.
After the previous week's concerto/act of opera pairing, this second concert of the season opted for the more conventional overture/concerto/symphony arrangement. For the concerto impressive young violinist Vilde Frang was once on duty, this time for the Brahms. She proved as persuasive a soloist here as in the Sibelius, her playing both technically to a high standard but also well characterised and passionate, always things that make a soloist stand out. Accompanying her, Runnicles kept the orchestra well balanced and found a good deal of the yearning that makes for fine orchestral Brahms. Yet, all said and done, despite some excellent playing, it didn't sweep me away as the Sibelius did the Sunday before. But then the Brahms has never been among my favourite violin concertos.
Friday, 8 October 2010
Ticciati is here to stay
It has been something of a whirlwind romance for Robin Ticciati and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. All it took was a tour of the highlands for players to beat a path to the management's door and suggest they hire him to fill the vacancy that existed in the orchestra's Principal Conductor spot. He took up this post in December. Today, less than a year later, it was announced his initial three year contract will be extended by another three to 2015.
It is not hard to see, or rather to hear why. As I remarked to a friend recently, Ticciati gets a better sound from this orchestra than anyone save Charles Mackerras. His programming has also been interesting, on the one hand bundling in new music, on the other bringing concert opera to the regular season. In short, this is very good news for the SCO and for music making and concert going in Scotland.
Why is Ticciati so well liked? Well, reports from rehearsals of Don Giovanni suggest that he is both charming and extremely knowledgeable. A friend in the chorus recalled to me a moment when he'd asked the orchestra to play a section differently in order that it properly fitted with the ongoing action at the time. Persuasion, rather than a dictatorial demand. That charm was evident the first time I saw him, when he turned to the Queen's Hall audience and addressed us as the real SCO audience. Which leads on to another feather in his cap - he understands the acoustic of that building in a chamber orchestra context (a rare talent).
Tuesday, 5 October 2010
Here's Runnicles with act 1 of Die Walküre
It wasn't too long ago that I was madly dashing back and forth across London in a desperate effort to make it into the last available Eurostar seat out of the UK after a certain Icelandic volcano had the temerity to misbehave. The reason: I had to get to Berlin before Donald Runnicles raised his baton on Deutsche Oper's most recent revival of the Ring cycle. A little less than six months later and he'd brought a small but perfectly formed slice of that action back home to Edinburgh to open the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's new season.
Indeed, he'd brought more than that: Reinhard Hagen reprised his role as Hunding and Heidi Melton, fresh from doubling up as both the third norn and, in a last minute but exemplary stand-in, Gutrune in Götterdämmerung, was perfectly cast as Sieglinde. They were joined by tenor Stuart Skelton as Siegmund.
A key challenge in bringing opera to the concert hall is maintaining the drama without sets, lights and fire. From the dramatic opening bars, as turbulent and vividly evocative of a storm as you could wish, it was clear that this would not be a problem. Runnicles' direction was matched by superb playing from the BBC SSO, on the absolute top of their game. One particular highlight was the sweetness of the horn playing, nowhere more so than after Sieglinde has offered Siegmund a sweetened drink.
Sunday, 3 October 2010
ENO's The Makropulos Case, or, the importance of having benchmarks
Regular readers may have observed two facts about my opera-going. First, that I have a bit of a bias for English National Opera and, particularly the Coliseum, over the Royal Opera and their House. Second, that I have been rather critical of the present management at English National Opera. Shortly before heading off to London last weekend, it struck me that I could conceivably manage to take in every production being mounted by English National Opera and that this would enable me to make perhaps a fairer judgement of the company's health, than is it strictly fair to do from a mere two or three productions a year. In pursuit of this goal, therefore, I headed off last Sunday, for the second time in less than 24 hours to the Coliseum. This time on the bill was the first revival of the season, Janáček's penultimate opera, The Makropulos Case. Our fellow critics have, in general, raved about it. Unfortunately, I cannot agree with them. The production is unsatisfactory, and my benchmark musically for this opera is the original performances of this production under the late, great Sir Charles Mackerras in 2006 which this revival does not surpass.
Let us start with the production. ENO has two other excellent new Janáčeks in its repertoire at the moment (productions of Jenufa and Katya Kabanova). Both were particularly effective in their construction of the relationships between the characters. Rather like Faust, this production is not infuriating but it is irritating, and in fact somewhat more so because rather more aspects of it are in conflict with the music. My brother, in tweeting his memories of the 2006 production, noted the contradiction to the libretto at the end where Emilia Marty stumbles round the stage, the infamous formula stuck to her hand, rather than it being burnt as the directions stipulate. This is actually a problem relating to the whole characterisation of Marty. The text makes absolutely clear that she has to be a spell-binding presence until the top of the third act, with only occasional chinks in her armour. In this production, the chinks are gaping holes – not least when she seems to have some kind of hot flush in the middle of Act One and goes reeling round the length of the stage. I also didn't find Amanda Roocroft as commanding in the part as I recollect Cheryl Barker being in 2006. Her diction becomes muddy under pressure and the link between sung text (often perfectly finely sung I concede) and action is not effectively brought off.
Next to this central problem the other irritations of the production are really just that, irritations. I cannot see why the troop of men have to keep chalking up details of the case on the blackboard at the back when the nature of the story is perfectly clear from the sung text. It is overly fussy and again detracts from the human collisions between the protagonists. Similarly the profusion of flowers in Act Two and the cascade of legal papers falling across the stage at the beginning of the opera. These at least have the merit of a textual justification but again it is fussy and undermines the emotional power of the piece.
Saturday, 2 October 2010
Paul Lewis rounds off his summer of Beethoven beautifully (with the help of Denève and the RSNO)
As Stéphane Denève noted in his remarks at the start of last night's concert, Paul Lewis has spent the summer working his way through the Beethoven concerti at the Proms. with a range of conductors. As regular readers will know, I've been most impressed, having reviewed all the concerts bar the final one with the RSNO and featuring the Emperor (see here, here and here). I skipped that because less than a month later they were due in Edinburgh to play it to us live. They did not disappoint.
All the hallmarks of Lewis's Beethoven, so familiar from the first four concertos, and indeed the superb survey of the sonatas he gave at the Queen's Hall between 2005 and 2007, were present. Those wonderful mixes of speed and clarity, weight and delicacy, were coupled with a feeling of authority. As his fingers danced up and down the keyboard the results were simply magical. Alongside him Denève proved a sensitive accompanist, ensuring an excellent balance between soloist and orchestra. The extreme pianissimos, something that showed a bit of a wobble in last week's Dvořák, were carried off well by the RSNO who were on top form throughout the evening.
Time and again they nailed the key moments, such as the way they built the tension in the lead up to the finale, a wonderfully mischievous grin on Denève's face as he turned to Lewis to ensure they broke in in perfect unison. Similarly, there was the way they drew out the quite fade-away false ending, before the drama and energy of the final few bars. Then there was Lewis's spellbinding playing in the last of the mini-cadenzas of the first movement, first its demonstration of his expertise in moving from force to subtlety, then as he seemed to toy with the music, drawing us to the edges of our seats in anticipation of the orchestra's return. It wasn't quite perfect: some of the orchestral passages could have had a touch more punch and have been that bit crisper, but it was more than good enough. And the slow movement, a general highlight of the Proms cycle, was sublime. In an astute programming decision, the Emperor was alone after the interval where it belonged, thus making it rightly the focus of the evening. This is the second time I've heard that done and it has worked well on both occasions. It's been said before, but that's no reason not to say it again: Lewis really is among the finest interpreters of Beethoven around today. A future project is his recording of the Diabelli variations - I can't wait.
Sunday, 26 September 2010
Faust at ENO, or, we are now collecting for the put the old warhorse out to grass fund
Our regular readers will know that I am compiling a gradually expanding little list of Great Operatic Mysteries (for the curious the last one was why on earth Royal Opera decided to stage The Gambler?). The English National Opera season opener provides a new one: how on earth has Gounod's Faust managed to remain in the repertory?
Let us start with the positives. The production itself, by Des McAnuff (whose main claim to fame is directing Jersey Boys) is inoffensive. I don't think that translating the story to the eve of the nuclear age adds much to the piece, but this is not a show where one spends one's time in a state of bafflement or fury at each new piece of staging. Actually, to some degree, the whole concept of World War One to World War Two seems a little flat and half baked. The set and costumes are much of the time so non-descript that if I hadn't read the programme note I would have been hard put to know that the setting had been updated. Where the updating is most obvious there are some effective aspects (the lab setting for Faust at the beginning and the end) and some totally ineffective aspects (the atom bomb test that the demons of hell seem to be witnessing at the top of the Fifth Act). McAnuff conjures up the odd striking stage picture, (e.g. Marguerite's appeal to God in Act Four) but otherwise offers regrettably little distraction from the music.
Turning to the musical performances things are rather more uneven. Toby Spence performs heroics in the title role. I didn't feel the range was quite right for him, and in the lower register he often disappeared beneath the orchestra, but he produced some fabulous ringing top notes and an effective characterisation of Faust both before and after his transformation. Iain Paterson (Mephistopheles) is beginning to worry me a little. I am informed that he was ill earlier in the week and maybe this accounts for it, but something of the command and power I recall from earlier performances was also not quite there when I saw him in Elektra in January. It's not that there's anything wrong with his performance here, per se, but it doesn't completely catch fire. As for Melody Moore as Marguerite, one could live with the dramatic problem that it is rather hard to see why her beauty beguiles Faust, if vocally she was up to the part, but she isn't. She was particularly laboured in the famous Jewel Song which I assume ought to bring the house down, elsewhere she was serviceable. Of the supporting cast, there was a nicely characterised Siebel from Anna Grevelius.
Saturday, 25 September 2010
@wheresrunnicles passes 1,000
If that means nothing to you, then you should probably stop reading now.
If, on the other hand, it does, then you'll know that the twitter account that accompanies this website recently passed the 1,000 follower mark (thanks to all those who follow - I never thought there'd be half that many). By way of celebration, we're having a little competition. Some people give away a prize to whomever happens to have been lucky enough to be number 1,000 but this strikes me as both arbitrary and unfair to loyal folk who've been around since day one. So, anyone can enter this competition, as long as they're on twitter and following me - even if you're not on twitter you can sign up right now and enter.
The next question, then, is what the question should be? Perhaps some Runnicles based fact to see how closely you've all been paying attention, such as what was the first piece I saw him conduct? However, beyond putting your googling skills to the test, it doesn't really tap your creativity in the way that, say @missmussel's wonderful #operaplot does.
Instead, then, I've gone for something in that vein. So, in order to win, all you have to do is send me a tweet which, in less than 140 characters, contains a description of, or interesting trivia about, Donald Runnicles. The best one (as judged by me - unless anyone fancies volunteering as a celebrity judge), will win. You can enter as many times as you like, the only restrictions are nothing libellous and that entries are kept within the bounds of taste and decency (wit and humour are perfectly fine, to be encouraged even).
Denève and the RSNO start their new season with the New World
It was slightly unfortunate that Stéphane Denève and the RSNO had chosen to open their 2010/11 season with Dvořák's 9th symphony, albeit a rather obvious choice, as Denève himself admitted. The problem was not so much the work in and of itself, but the fact that it is so over-played, which means that it doesn't always work too well if the performers don't have something special to say about it. Problematic too because we've been rather spoilt lately for good and fresh performances, such as Nelsons' excellent turn at the Proms and, more crucially, the performance by Runnicles and the BBC SSO not one month ago in the same venue.
Sadly Denève and RSNO didn't come close. Where Nelsons banished all hint of routine, and Runnicles provided electrifying climaxes and nail-biting tension, Denève didn't seem to have terribly much to say at all. Not only was the result rather bland but, more critically, the ensemble playing was not nearly as tight as it should have been. Numerous entries, especially in the slow movement, were just a little rough around the edges, balances between sections jarred slightly, the brass were rather woolly and the strings struggled to sustain the extreme pianissimos they were called upon to produce. It wasn't that the playing was bad per se, just that it wasn't up to the very high standards this orchestra can produce, and did produce just a month ago at the festival. And, indeed, the standards they had managed in the first half of the concert. I've no idea if it was the cause of the problems, but it would be interesting to know how much rehearsal time the symphony got - it felt like it could have used that bit more for some fine tuning. Then there was the failure to build or sustain tension, the lack of drama. All told, it was an adequate performance, the trouble is that this is a work were adequate isn't really enough.
Despite better playing, the first half was also a little hit and miss. They opened the programme with MacMillan's Three Interludes from The Sacrifice. Now, the first thing I want to know when presented with a suite from an opera is where in the opera the music was taken from, what dramatically is going on, so the music is properly in context. Sadly the programme notes didn't provide this (there was a synopsis of the whole piece, but nothing to relate that to the suite), and Denève in his remarks only briefly touched on it. As such, well played though it was, if the work isn't as fiendishly tricky as some of his earlier compositions which I've heard recently, I didn't feel that I was getting out of it everything that was there.
Passion at the Donmar, or nobody's written an epistolary novel since the eighteenth century
Regular readers will know that I am a Sondheim aficionado. It may therefore come as something of a shock when I say that this is the only Sondheim show I have so far seen (unseen to date are Company and Pacific Overtures) which has not worked.
First off it is only fair to say that neither the production nor the company can be faulted. Both make the best possible claim that can be made of this show, Sondheim's last major work (Road Show, formerly Bounce having apparently been workshopped to death). Granted I did at times wonder if Fosca is meant to sound so much like Edith Piaf, but this may have been a consequence of having read Elena Roger's bio before the show started. As in other productions at the Donmar, the show makes a virtue of the limited space and successfully conjures up railway stations, sun-drenched rooms, grim provincial military outposts. The evocative lighting and clever painting of the back wall reminded me of the superb production of The Chalk Garden.
Of the three leads Scarlett Strallen and David Birrell give particularly good performances. Strallen benefits from having the most internally convincing character to work with. The supporting cast, mostly playing members of the military garrison, are all nicely characterised and Ross Dawes and Tim Morgan have brilliant little cameos as Fosca's parents.
Wednesday, 8 September 2010
Into the Woods at the Open Air Theatre, or Laughter, Tears and some Niggles
WARNING: The view of a Sondheim aficionado follows.
When it comes to this musical, I am notoriously hard to please. It was the first Sondheim show I ever saw, in the original London production, with Julia Mckenzie as the Witch, Ian Bartholomew as the Baker and perhaps above all Imelda Staunton as the Baker's Wife. I knew nothing of Sondheim then, and consequently subconsciously expected it to have a happy ending. I have never forgotten the shock of the second act. After years of waiting for a professional revival we have now had two in succession – the Royal Opera production and now one at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park.
I first tried to see this just under two weeks ago and was defeated by the rain. Life is rather hectic at the moment, and given the pressures of work, the threat of further rain, the reports of transport chaos, and general exhaustion, I nearly decided to give up the whole arduous business of a mad dash in from Lincoln for one night. Thank goodness I didn't. Despite some minor flaws, this show packs the necessary punch, and, as it has done nearly every other time I've seen it, had me weeping by the middle of the second act.
The production makes the most of the open air setting with an audacious multi-layered set, topped by Rapunzel's tower and shrouded by the actual trees. As darkness falls the shadows make an ever more effective wood. There is a consistent inventiveness – Cinderella's birds are nicely realised, the use of green umbrellas to create the beanstalk is magical, only the giant really doesn't work on the scenic front. Usually she is just an offstage presence, and on this showing it just isn't possible to make her sufficiently threatening when seen. There was something of a Doctor Who monster on insufficient budget about her which rather undid Judi Dench's Shakespearean delivery.
Sunday, 5 September 2010
Here's Runnicles with Mahler 8 and the EIF 2010 closing concert (or, list of lifelong dreams you are now one shorter)
I first heard Mahler's epic 8th symphony eight or nine years ago, via a recording by Giuseppe Sinopoli and the Philharmonia Orchestra. It, along with a recording of the 5th, was my first serious exploration of the composer. From the opening bars, the massive forces, the low rumbling organ, the cry of "veni, creator spirtus" through the next ninety minutes or so, I had never heard anything like it. I've dearly wanted to hear it live ever since. At the closing concert of this year's Edinburgh festival, in the hands of Donald Runnicles, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the massed voices of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus (supplemented by singers from the RSNO chorus and the SCO chorus), the RSNO junior chorus and an impressive line-up of soloists, the result was more powerful than I could have imagined. Indeed, it is the kind of event for which the word awesome was surely invented.
That opening movement, done right, should feel like you've been hit by a train (in a good way, if that's not a contradiction in terms). In Runnicles' hands it seemed to happen repeatedly, and several of them appeared to have been carrying a cargo of nuclear explosives. He deployed his innate theatricality to thrilling effect as, at the close, brass reinforcements appeared at three most central dress circle doors giving the kind of effect that sets the heart racing, the legs shaking, the mouth open and gaping, and is impossible to recreate on a CD. I'm not sure I could have got to my feet if I'd wanted to - I have no idea how the performers carried on for another hour.
Friday, 3 September 2010
EIF 2010 - Steven Osborne, or, I had no idea Rachmaninov wrote Jazz
Edinburgh audiences have a slight tendency to be a bit po-faced. I recall well the criticism levelled at Jonathan Mills when he opened his first festival with a concert performance of Bernstein's Candide. It was pleasing therefore to see a full house at the Queen's Hall for Steven Osborne's jazz laced program on Tuesday morning.
Osborne has been a regular performer at the Festival as long as I have been going, and many of those performances have been unforgettable. I recall a mesmerising Vingt Regard sur l'enfant Jesus in the same venue, and a glorious Bartok Third Piano Concerto with a Keith Jarrett encore in the Usher Hall. However, this year's recital programme was especially intriguing, beginning with a mixed bag first half including pieces by Ives, Gershwin, Scott Joplin and Oscar Peterson, before turning to Ravel and Rachmaninov in the second.
The whole was a delight. I was initially slightly distracted by the sight of Jonathan Mills tapping away to the Maple Leaf Rag, but the music quickly took precedence. Osborne's playing has two major characteristics. First, his sheer virtuosity. In a big tour de force piece like Oscar Peterson's (Back Home Again in) Indiana which brought the house down at the end of the first half, he simply dazzles the ear. Osborne's technique is impeccable and the piece certainly kept me on the edge of my seat. Elsewhere, though, he is capable of the softest, lightest touch to conjure introspective, wistful moods, particularly evident in George Crumb's Processional and the Kapustin Jazz Preludes. One of the things which has been exciting about this festival (though arriving in Edinburgh late on in the Festival I have not been able to enjoy as much of it as I should have liked) is the much wider range of music being presented, particularly from the twentieth century, and Osborne certainly contributed to that here. Perhaps hearing Kapustin's complete preludes they might overstay their welcome but the ones played here were beautiful miniatures.
EIF 2010 - Bliss
It was a brave decision to end the opera programme of this year's festival with a new work from a composer who is not a household name, not least given the costs of importing an opera company all the way from Australia. Yet, in Bliss, Jonathan Mills' gamble paid off and handsomely: it made for a fine and memorable night in the theatre.
Stephen Smith (Police Officer) & Peter Coleman-Wright (Harry Joy) in Opera Australia's 'Bliss' (Photo: Branco Gaica)
The production was instantly striking, with three sides of the stage enclosed by walls covered in lightbulbs (actually LEDs) of constantly shifting colours, in which various doors opened and closed seamlessly, allowing singers and set on and off. In stark contrast to the derivative and often intrusive use of video projection in Porgy and Bess, these were employed to inspired effect: some windows here made a house, the green line of the ECG machine reminded us of Joy's fragile health and transported us to the hospital and the flames of hell licked up from below (they even illustrated the elephant in the room - of which more anon). This was coupled with a simple revolving stage that reinforced the fluid changes in and out of scene; nowhere was this more so than in the second act which alternated between a hotel room, with a bridge visible outside, and the family home. All credit then to the production team of director Neil Armfield, set designer Brian Thomson (also responsible for those magical lights) and choreographer Kate Champion: together they have produced a production that is clever, inventive and doesn't get in the way as so many do, rather it effectively serves the text.
Wednesday, 1 September 2010
EIF 2010 - Jansons and the Concertgewbouw
Recently it was announced that Mariss Jansons was to withdraw from some concerts this autumn while he undergoes a scheduled operation. His health has been a concern since he suffered a heart attack while conducting La Boheme in 1996. I mention this because, as he danced about on the podium (his own, a metal framed construction that seems always to accompany him whether I hear him in Edinburgh or London), you would not have supposed that to be the case.
His last visit to Edinburgh three years ago, with his other band, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, was rather special. Having heard him with the Concertgebouw in the less than ideal acoustic of the Barbican, their two festival concerts promised to be a treat. Certainly in terms of pure orchestral beauty they were.
Their first programme began with Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments. There were some extremely beautiful moments, especially in the chorale section at the end, and it provided a nice showcase for the Concertgewbouw's winds to shine. And yet, it was slightly underwhelming as a curtain raiser, something of a curiosity and not Stravinsky's greatest work.
Much better was to follow with Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. It was wonderfully played from start to finish, especially the wonderful pizzicato sections in the second movement. Jansons ensured both tight playing from the ensemble and plenty of drama.
Tuesday, 31 August 2010
EIF 2010: Sin Sangre, or here we go again. Sigh.
The first thing one should always do when deciding on theatrical offerings at the Edinburgh International Festival is read the small print. In this case, the key word is “stylised” - the acting, and the vocal delivery in particular (I have never heard a child who sounded like the child does here) fight the text and pretty successfully drain away the emotional impact that it ought to have.
This is not uncommon in EIF theatrical offerings, as previous reviews of mine have indicated. But in this case it is particularly frustrating because of the quality of the text. The play is an adaptation of Alessandro Baricco's novel of the same name. Baricco, most famous for his novella Silk is a master of that particular form of shorter fiction. His prose has a rhythm to it, so that the pages turn rapidly – in Sin Sangre the novella the pace is unrelenting and the dialogue came alive in my head. I read the book not long ago, and the text, as conveyed by the subtitles last night, certainly read like Baricco.
The first problem with the adaptation, to my mind, is Teatro Cinema's principle claim to an original idea. As the name implies, the show (and The Man Who Fed Butterflies, their other offering) attempt to fuse film and theatre. As the programme note explains, the actors perform in a strip of space between two screens onto which are projected the film of the various backgrounds. This was not wholly dissimilar, although obviously far more complex in execution, to the use of film in Sunset Boulevard. For the first 10-15 minutes I appreciated the complexity of the staging and its visual beauty. But as time goes on the novelty wears off, and the process seems to get increasingly in the way of the story as the narrative – which zips along in Baricco's novel, holding at least this reader in a vice like grip – grinds to a halt.
Monday, 30 August 2010
EIF 2010: The Minnesota Orchestra
My first concert at this year's EIF was the latest of the impressive array of visiting orchestras Jonathan Mills has engaged for his fourth festival, although in rather more conventional fare than much of the programme. Perhaps unsurprisingly this proved a cue for the conservative Edinburgh audience to pack the Usher Hall. The performance was certainly well worth hearing, but not overall a complete triumph.
Osmo Vanska and his orchestra began with a piece by Barber, Music for a Scene from Shelley, with which I was not familiar. Starting as it soon proved they meant to go on, the orchestra produced some beautiful sounds, particularly from the brass section, and showed a wonderful command of the carefully constructed climax. The piece itself is nothing special, rather sub Richard Strauss and one can see why it isn't much performed.
Far more frequently heard is the Elgar Cello Concerto which followed, although this is the first time I have heard it performed live. The soloist, not previously known to me, was Alisa Weilerstein, recipient of a number of awards and currently Artist in Residence at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Like the Barber, although for different reasons, this was not a wholly satisfying performance. Weilerstein was capable of producing some lovely sounds, but she didn't have enough forceful attack where it's needed to sufficiently compete with the orchestra and didn't quite seem to have an overall grasp of the piece, which particularly in the slow movement rather ground to a halt. Discussing it afterwards with my companion we agreed that there also seemed to be something of a conflict of interpretations going on between Weilerstein, who wanted to revel in her solos (there was a bit too much dramatic hair tossing for my taste, not matched by the quality of the interpretation) and Vanska who was plainly trying but not managing to move things along. The applause nevertheless was warm.
Sunday, 29 August 2010
Here's Runnicles, with Stravinsky, Bernstein and Dvořák
Each August and September, thanks to the Edinburgh International Festival, we get treated to a few of the world's great orchestras. What has struck me over the last four days, in the space of which, on nearly consecutive nights, we've heard from each of Scotland's main orchestras, is the extent to which the locals can stand toe to toe with the competition in terms of the quality of their playing. On Saturday, with Donald Runnicles, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra provided the third demonstration in the series.
The programme had been chosen to fit with the festival's New Worlds theme and they opened it with Stravinsky's Concerto in E-flat "Dumbarton Oaks". Repeating a trick we last saw from him in January with the Siegfried Idyll, it allowed Runnicles to pare back the BBC SSO to a minimum with just the first desks of strings along with flute, clarinet, bassoon and few horns. There was some superb playing on show, but piece as a whole didn't do a huge among for me.
More normal sized forces followed for Bernstein's Serenade, and full string orchestra was joined by an interesting array of percussion (sensitively used). Above them violin soloist Midori played beautifully and with plenty of character. The slow movement was especially fine, both for the incredible soft playing of the orchestra and for the solo part - based on a three part song, the violin certainly sang.
Saturday, 28 August 2010
Ticciati makes his Edinburgh festival debut
Seated at the front of the stage, their pianos tessellated together, dressed all in black, the Labèque sisters might as well have been members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. It was a similar story when they played, such was the unity of their interpretation and the uniformly high standard of playing. With Robin Ticciati at the helm, making his debut at the Edinburgh festival, they provided an astonishing performance of Poulenc's concerto for two pianos. The two soloists had both precision and punch, yet thankfully not the sort that comes simply from thumping the keyboard; there was delicacy on display too. Beneath them Ticciati and the orchestra provided well judged and dramatic accompaniment. Sandwiched between the fireworks of the outer movements, it was perhaps the spellbinding slow movement that was most impressive. Either way, it seems a crying shame that the BBC were not there to record it for broadcast.
They had begun the programme with Rebel's Les Elemens. The opening movement, with a modern feel that belied its 18th century origins, started as Ticciati was still walking to the podium. A series of long, deep and dramatic shuddering chords marked the start of each section. In short it was compelling listening. Interestingly, it was composed separately from the main ballet and added later. I'd rather it had stayed separate as the rest seemed pretty unremarkable. They played it nicely enough but it was a bit bland and didn't do much for me. The birdsong effects in the third movement were especially twee and not a patch on what Messiaen would achieve two centuries later.
After the interval came the world premier of Kevin Volans' Symphony: Daar Kom die Alibama. Commissioning of new music is an innovation of Jonathan Mills' tenure as festival director that I'm very glad of and this proved an interesting listen, if not entirely satisfying. It was hardly a symphony, more a series of miniatures, each playing with various textures. A shimmering feel ran through them, calling to mind the sea effectively. In his programme note, Vorlans admits he "allowed myself a certain amount of repetition." Try a lot: each section being by and large extremely repetitive. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, as various of the modern pieces at this year's festival have shown. And, certainly, many of the sections were wonderful to listen, beautiful and compelling textures, superbly played. The finest moments came in the few minutes either side of a sublimely delicate section for the winds. The problem was more that there didn't seem any particular rhyme or reason why one section followed another and not the other way round; it didn't really seem to go anywhere or build to anything. It also slightly overstayed its welcome and had the feeling that some tighter editing would have served it well.
The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra try to bring Jazz to the International Festival
I'm a big fan of the idea of crossing things over, of mingling and fusing different styles and presenting things to an audience they might not normally come across. As such, I thought bringing some Jazz to the International Festival was a great idea, especially given the heavily American themes this year, even though Edinburgh is pretty well served with its own Jazz festival. While the other major attempt at blurring boundaries this year, the Kronos Quartet, was a stunning success, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra sadly fell rather flat.
The first half was split in two and began with a performance of Gil Evans' arrangement of Porgy and Bess. Since we'd had the opera already, this seemed sensible. Add to which Evans' is an incredible arranger and the piece is one of his greatest achievements. Unfortunately, it was originally conceived for Miles Davis and it is through this recording (one of the great albums of all time) that most people will know it. The problem with trying to recreate something so amazing is that either you have to be astonishingly good, or you should try and find something new to say. The SNJO, conducted by Gunther Schuller, did neither. Instead they delivered a flat and lifeless reading of six of the numbers, utterly lacking the vividness and punch of the original. Where was the grit, the colour? Also, given the quality of some of their playing later in the evening, the ensemble seemed a little loose. Taking Davis's solo part, Kenny Rampton failed to distinguish himself. In fairness, though, he wasn't helped by some poor balancing of the amplification (a constant complaint throughout the evening).
After a brief pause wherein Schuller went off to change his jacket (if Joyce DiDonato could, he suggested, why not he? Fair enough - but she didn't make us wait), they presented a series of seven jazz masterpieces. Schuller failed to get off on the right foot with me, with his rather patronising suggestion that we might associate the word masterpiece with only classical music. Now, not everyone knows as much about jazz as I do (though I know a fair few jazz fans amongst EIF regulars), but I suspect even hardened classical obsessives who were taking a punt aren't so narrow-minded as that. There seemed a presumption that it was the regular festival audience, but looking around I don't think it was. However, when he started to talk about the music he redeemed himself and gave us interesting facts and anecdotes. He seemed transformed from Porgy and Bess, now standing to conduct and generally raising the energy level (it was almost like he hadn't really wanted to do the first part).
EIF 2010 - Denève and the RSNO play French music with a Spanish flavour
It may not immediately seem to fit with the festival's New Worlds theme, yet to me the RSNO's second visit to the festival, under the baton of their chief conductor Stéphane Denève, seemed a perfect match. A week and a half before I'd been at an adaptation of The Sun Also Rises, which chronicles some Parisian residents on a journey to Spain for fiestas and bullfights. As such, what could sit better with that than some french composers writing about Spain. It was also heavy on the kind of dazzling showmanship with which Denève thrives.
They began with Chabrier's Espana. The orchestra's playing was impressive, not least given the speed at which he took it. Indeed, so much so that I might have liked them to go a touch slower in places and allow some of the wonderful brass fanfares to breath a little more.
This was followed by Ibert's Escales. While its sole Spanish connection is a final movement titled Valence (composition having been begun in Vaencia), it does have an Iberian feel throughout. Shades too of the heat of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Their performance featured an impressive mix of beautiful soft playing, the orchestra's fine string tone particularly noticeable, and fabulous climaxes marked by their wonderful precision, power and speed.
Sunday, 22 August 2010
Showstopper, or a week last Thursday I saw the most incredible musical
Note - this review caries a shameless plug tag as the production features amongst its cast Andrew Pugsley who in addition to being my friend is also one of my colleagues on this site.
Last Thursday night I was lucky enough to attend the world premiere of a superb new musical: Flying Without Wings. It is an epic story of a man, Captain Microwave (Pugsley), who can boil liquids with a single glance and the love he shares with a three eyed superheroine Tara (Sarah-Louise Young). It is the story of their epic confrontation with Dr Disco (a delightfully evil Philip Pellew) atop New York's iconic Chrysler building. It is a genre spanning masterpiece that encompasses styles as disparate as Kurt Weill and Lady Gaga. It is the only place you will learn the truth about Kryptonite. At this point, I would be urging you to make haste to see it, but you cannot. For while last Thursday was the premiere, it was also the last ever performance. No, this is not some hideously unfair result of arts funding evaporating in a recession, rather it is the raison d'etre of Showstopper, to improvise a musical, from your suggestions, before your very eyes, in a little over an hour; and it is glorious!
The conceit is simply enough, the phone (glowing red, in best bat style) goes and at the other end Cameron (Mackintosh, we are doubtless left to suppose and chuckle) delivers his uncompromising verdict on the tape of the musical he has just received. The director has but one option: he must invent a new musical in the next hour or lose his funding and he needs the help of the audience to do it. Title, theme, not to mention a variety of musical styles, all come from the audience.
EIF 2010 - The extraordinary, spellbinding and breathtaking Kronos Quartet (or, more please, soon!)
Given how often I chastise Edinburgh audiences for not showing up for adventurous programming, it was gratifying to see a pretty full Usher Hall for the Kronos Quartet. This did not seem, though, to be quite the traditional festival audience - it was a lot younger for a start. Clearly the Kronos Quartet have a wide following outside of traditional classical music, begging the question of whether there is a way to draw the one into the other and vice versa.
But enough of that, how about the concert? The Usher Hall was as dimly lit as I've seen it, with the quartet's stools set out in the centre of the stage and tightly boxed in by rectangles of light. You couldn't have read your programme if you'd wanted to - it forced the focus firmly onto the music.
They began with Aleksandra Vrebalov's ... hold me, neighbor, in this storm... and from the offset they showed that they're one of those ensembles who almost deserve the moniker of annoyingly talented, by which I mean that not only did they play their violins, violas and cellos superbly but also drums, cymbals, their own voices and more. It began with violinist John Sherba beating a big drum, or tapan, and David Harrington bowing on an unusual lute-like instrument - a gusle. Vrebalov is a native of the former Yukoslavia and the piece was vividly evocative of the place, mingling in bells and spoken word, sounding at times like a call to prayer. The result was intense.
EIF 2010 - Idomeneo
One of the potential highlights of this year's Edinburgh International festival always seemed set to be the concert performance Mozart's Idomeneo, with a star studded cast, performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and conducted by Charles Mackerras. The team have previously played all the major Mozart operas in concert at the festival, making recordings in tandem, most recently La Clemenza di Tito in 2005. Sadly, Sir Charles's death last month meant that it was not to be and the performance was dedicated to his memory. In many ways it was a fitting tribute to his contributions to the festival.
In his place, Roger Norrington had stepped in. Despite Jonathan Mills' attempt to link them, I've never felt the two are terribly similar and often I find Norrington's personality gets in the way of the music. I was, therefore, extremely pleasantly surprised that not only did I not feel that to be the case, but furthermore, I did not find myself wishing that Mackerras had been on the podium. Norrington's approach was not overly hurried, as it can be. Instead, he let the music breath, though it still bounced along nicely, and under him the orchestra were on sparkling form.
The cast were exceptional. Thus it was the more impressive a feat that Joyce DiDonato stood out amongst them as Idamante. It was not simply that she has a beautiful voice, though she has one of the best, but that in addition she is a wonderful actress and has the most tremendous stage presence. Just take, for one example among so many, her cry of "Barbaro fato!" (cruel fate), in scene five of act one. Fully trouser suited up, she convinced in her portrayal of a man. In the title role, Kurt Streit gave an understated performance in the first act, but his act two aria "Fuor del mar ho un mare in seno" was extraordinary and he remained near that level for the rest of the night. Both Rosemary Joshua and Emma Bell, as Ilia and Elettra, rivals for Idamante's affections, were on fine form. Even in the smaller roles there were no weak links, such as Rainer Trost (who worked with Mackerras on Clemenza, when he stood in at the last minute for Bostridge), who sang Arbace so well you wished it was a bigger part.
Saturday, 21 August 2010
EIF 2010 - The Russian National Orchestra
Edinburgh is predictable sometimes. The Usher Hall languishes half empty for a programme of Nielsen, a fifth full if you try an obscure bit of Messiaen, but stick a Beethoven overture together with the Tchaikovsky violin concerto and a Shostakovich symphony and you have a sell out. The withdrawal of Pletnev didn't seem to have dampened enthusiasm. Interestingly, one group I overheard were discussing the new spiral staircase as if they'd never seen it before, indicating they hadn't been here for over a year.
However, great works do not a great concert make. They started with Beethoven's Coriolan Overture. This was fascinating listening with Boreyko and the Russian National Orchestra delivering an angular and brutal interpretation. Stalinist, one might almost call it. It didn't work for me at all (and the lukewarm applause suggests I was not alone).
They were on home ground for Tchiakovsky's violin concerto, and while there was some good playing in evidence, not to mention a stunning technical display from soloist Vadim Repin and some very fine wind solos, it managed to leave me utterly cold. Not only was it intensely clinical but they seemed to go out of their way to squash all the big tunes. I seemed to be in the minority though, and he played an encore, accompanied by the orchestra in a manner that looked almost spontaneous, with a degree of wit and passion that I would have loved to hear in the concerto.