Wednesday 27 January 2010

Sherlock Holmes, or Guy Ritchie's triumphant Homage-a-thon

Rarely have I seen a film quite so replete with homages to the work of others as Guy Ritchie's new take on Sherlock Holmes. At times the viewer might be forgiven for thinking that he has wandered into one of Tim Burton's Batman movies, Young Sherlock Holmes (a film for which I must admit some affection), Doctor Who Victoriana (whether of Tom Baker or Sylvester McCoy vintage) or the Da Vinci Code franchise (I must admit I have never actually seen a whole movie from the last stable but judging by the trailers there seems to be some overlap). More distantly one can also glimpse echoes of other classics of the period adventure romp, the score occasionally sounds a little Pirates of the Caribbean and the ensemble is reminiscent of Indiana Jones. Why then, you may ask, should you bother going to see this film? Because despite these many influences it is hilariously funny, keeps you on the edge of your seat, boasts a superb cast and an excellent script (the latter a sad rarity in the film world and therefore the more deserving of praise).


It is the twin elements of very successful casting and scripting that make this film such a triumph. The script has been produced by no less than three writers (Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg), none of whom seem to have done much in the way of films before if IMDB is to be believed. Yet the script shows no signs of the clunkiness one might expect from a multiple production. It is often very funny, but can be moving without tipping over into melodrama, and cleverly keeps you guessing about the key McGuffins of the plot – is Lord Blackwood (a suitably demonic Mark Strong) really achieving all his successes by black magic and is Holmes in some way implicated in the crimes. They are also extremely clever in their characterisation of Holmes: in place of Jeremy Brett's mordant figure, Robert Downey Jr gives us a master detective whose brain is forever working overtime and keeping him dangerously close to madness. This may not be completely Conan Doyle's creation but it is to my mind a successful re-imagining, true to much of the spirit of the original, rather than a travesty. Ritchie's direction persistently shows Downey uncovering clues, but these moments are submerged into other scenes, often through distracting dialogue from Watson, so that it really is a surprise (as it often is in the stories) when Holmes finally reveals how he has deduced various key points. The point of course is, as I seem to remember Holmes saying in at least one story, that most of the information is before our eyes, and if we had a mind like Holmes's we might see it.

Downey's partnership with Jude Law's Dr Watson is at the heart of the film, and is superbly brought off. From the very first moment we see them together, through all the twists and turns of the complex plot, they are completely believable particularly perhaps the exasperation which both use to cover how far they depend on each other. Rachel McAdams is suitably stunning as Holmes's love interest and intellectual match, and if the script does not always work so effectively for her as the others this is not her fault. Given that she is identified as Irene Adler, this is probably the point most likely to have Sherlockian purists up in arms. Yet A Scandal in Bohemia emphasises a kind of connection between her and Holmes, whom she does successfully outwit, so her role here is not so completely far-fetched. Also worthy of mention are fine turns from Eddie Marson (as Inspector Lestrade) and the marvellous Geraldine James, who is criminally underused as Mrs Hudson, an error one trusts will be rectified in the rumoured sequel.

To sum up, despite the occasional unconvincing bit of CGI (the fight on Tower Bridge at the end is particularly culpable) and the odd melodramatic turn of phrase, this is a rollicking good yarn, featuring a superb partnership of performances by Downey and Law. I look forward to the sequel.

What are you doing a year on Sunday? - The LSO unveils its 2010/11 Season

I love a good season announcement as much as anyone, but I can't help thinking, as I've thought before, that January is a little early. We won't know what The SCO, RSNO, BBC Scottish and Royal Opera are doing until March/April time. This matters to me, since as travelling south is expensive, I like to ensure I get the most bang for my buck and that I'm not missing any gems on my own doorstep (I inevitably wind up with one or two clashes all the same). This means that, exciting though the London Symphony Orchestra's 2010/11 season is (PDF download here.), I'll not be booking anything just yet.

Well, almost nothing. I've already booked one thing: a year on Sunday you'll find me, baring calamity, in the Barbican to hear Mark Elder conduct them in The Kingdom. It doesn't come up all that often, and to find it under the baton of one of the greatest Elgarians represents an unmissable opportunity. (And if you doubt how unmissable Elder's Elgar is, read what he did with Gerontius last summer, not to mention the fact that I prefer the Kingdom as a work.)

Don't panic though, it was only in December last year when I got round to planning my February & March LSO visits and found tickets easily for everything I wanted (including Beethoven one and nine with Gardiner). What other highlights, though, present themselves for later booking.

Well, the first thing that leaps out at me is Janacek's Glagolitic Mass, one of my favourite works by one of my favourite composers (and given it's getting Sunday and Tuesday runs, we can presume it's being recorded). True, the lack of a real organ at the Barbican is a shame, but it should be fine none the less. Davis conducts, which causes me to speculate that Gergiev might do something very interesting with the piece.

For those who like Gergiev's Mahler, there's another substantial dose, and if you're wondering why it's back so soon, the fifth and ninth symphonies are being taped again, not having been captured to everyone's satisfaction last time around. The first also gets a look in. Personally, I've found what I've heard of the series a little rushed, but I do plan to give it a fuller exploration at some point, perhaps when LSO Live finally makes it to Spotify.

The Mahler flavour is continued elsewhere, though, with something arguable far more fascinating, namely Marin Alsop's programme early in December. She gives us Beethoven's Leonore III overture and seventh symphony as orchestrated by Mahler. Given, to my mind, orchestration was one of Mahler's greatest talents, this promises to be very interesting indeed. Certainly his version of Schubert's Death and the Maiden made rather special listening with the SCO last April. Sandwiched between them we find a composition by Mahler, but in a surprise Alma and not Gustav: seven lieder arranged by David and Colin Matthews.

Elsewhere Rattle will be around to do Bruckner nine and some Messiaen, Noseda brings Bartok's second violin concerto and Prokoviev's sixth symphony, Gardner does Mendelssohn's Italian symphony, Harding accompanies Grimaud in Mozart's sublime K488 concerto and Gergiev kicks of the season with Pictures at an Exhibition.

In short, there's an awful lot of interesting stuff. My main reservation is that the season is relatively light on concert opera, with a sole offering in the form of Candide with Kristjan Jarvi. (Well, I suppose I should also ask "Where's Runnicles?", but we do see plenty of him up here these days.)

Playing the game of what is being recorded is also good fun - it's usually a safe bet that it's those works up twice in a row. Thus we may expect to see future LSO Live releases including Bruckner four from Haitink and Tchaikovsky's first three symphonies from Gergiev.

Not content, however, with selling the 2010/11 season now (tickets went on sale on Monday), the LSO is reaching yet further, with a concert series coupling Beethoven's piano concerti and Nielsen's symphonies with Davis and Uchida that runs up to December 2011 (the symphonies look set for disc). I suspect these may be ones that will go quickly, and which are worth booking now.

While I'll hold off the remainder of my booking for the time being, I think it's safe to say that I won't be a stranger to the Barbican next season.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Making it worse? How could it be worse? - Popstar to Opera Star, tweet by tweet, Part II

Making it worse? How could it be worse?

So demands a character in Monty Python's immortal Life of Brian as he's about to get stoned to death for suggesting that the fish his wife prepared for supper was good enough for Jehovah. Those who watched the first instalment of Popstar to Opera Star (I refuse to follow them in conjoining opera star into a new word) might well have asked the same question. Sadly, ITV was ready, willing, and able to demonstrate the foolishness of asking such questions: it was straight over the precipice in top gear as songs, heaven forfend arias, with increasingly tenuous connections to the world of opera were trotted out and, frankly, stoned to death. So, here it is, tweet by tweet (albeit somewhat time delayed, as I was once again at a proper concert), as @wheresrunnicles saw it.

Warning, as with last week's instalment, the following may contain traces of irony:

Commencing my time delayed #popstarstooperastars tweeting

"Today our pop stars are pushed to their limits". To, you say. Hmm, I think they need to look behind them (possibly using the Hubble)

[West Wing fans, spot the reference!]

"To learn a completely new song." Yes, for god's sake let's not challenge the audience by calling it an aria

You can't argue with that, Katherine Jenkins does indeed "have a simply staggering voice"......

What's the challenge of singing in a foreign language? Good question - what Laurence Lewellyn Bowen would know about that is a better one

Incidentally, tonight's whisky is a cask strength Caol Ila (bottle doesn't give an age so presumably less than ten years)

These really seem to be the most unproductive rehearsals I have ever witnessed.

"Is this in French?" he asks after having been rehearsing it for some time - I wonder if this is all really some comic setup

@DrGeoduck well, she tends to sound pretty terrible to me

[DrGeoduck had suggested that Jenkins' voice was simply dull.]

To be filed under: for the love of God why? RT @TimesMusic Viva Forever: Mamma Mia creator creates Spice Girls musical

[Oh, sorry, that's a completely unrelated but no less appalling musical travesty, please disregard.]

Good grief - there's a chorus in this number. I know music students are hard up, but surely it's not that bad???

I wonder if Meat Loaf needs to be sedated?

@Kateviola it's certainly easing the pain

[@Kateviola had expressed the view that the Caol Ila was a good choice.]

Are they trying to cut this ironically - if so, the exert that just followed "she's got a beautiful voice" was judged to perfection

Are the people on the panel not allowed to say anything critical to any of these people. I thought that was the point of talent shows

Ah yes, that well known opera aria, the love theme from The Godfather. I don't know that opera - can anyone tell me who wrote it?

But I'm impressed they're ploughing the more obscure parts of the canon amidst all the well known favourites

Ah, I take it back, there is criticism - she was slightly ahead of the orchestra (but that doesn't matter to our Katherine)

RT @STManson @wheresrunnicles It's from the Opera-"The Public Won't Know So Let's Just Sing Opera-Like Things"

[@STManson provides an answer to my question about that obscure opera The Godfather.]

And just what the **** (if you'll pardon my French) does this Volare thing have to do with opera?

[That would be this Volare thing. Apparently Pavarotti sang it once.]

I think I need something stiffer than this cask strength whisky. I mean they want him to sing it in an opera way, what next, Iron Maiden?

"You did something with your hand and it was sexy." - okay, now I'm really disturbed

[As if in answer to that unasked question as to whether Meat Loaf could do anything to make his contribution to the programme any more disturbing, he demonstrated that indeed he could.]

Well quite! (Though I can proudly say I have no idea what that sounds like) RT @Gert @wheresrunnicles Or the theme from The One Show?

[@Gert provides a possible answer to my Iron Maiden question.]

15p from each call goes to Music Therapy charity Nordoff-Robbins. That's nice, but give directly and ITV doesn't get 35p

[Yes, even amidst my mockery there is time for something serious - it's a good cause, and you can give without ITV getting a penny.]

Oh, what a coincidence, once again the judges are tied. If I was cynical, I' d suggest that was contrived, but that would never happen.....

And that concludes the not particularly live tweeting of part two of #popstarstooperastars

[Well, with the exception of a few comments to @karenasoprano while she watched it the next day.]

@karenasoprano oh, just you wait until you get onto some of the later stuff whose connection to opera is beyond tenuous

@karenasoprano i.e. Pavarotti once sung happy birthday, I want you to sing it in an operatic manner (okay, I exaggerate, but barely)

@karenasoprano Indeed. @STManson tells me: It's from the Opera-"The Public Won't Know So Let's Just Sing Opera-Like Things"

@karenasoprano It gets worse.

And that really is it. @wheresrunnicles' live(ish) tweeting may well return next week (though it will not be live - I have a leaving do for a colleague).

Monday 25 January 2010

Tippett, Shostakovich and Schumann from Lill, Davis and the RSNO

Friday night's Royal Scottish National Orchestra programme is in some ways a tough one to review because I don't really know two of the three works. But I'm not about to let that stop me.

My last significant encounter with Andrew Davis was a set of Dvorak symphonies on RCA with the Philharmonia which I found dull beyond measure and where it felt like the orchestra were asleep, if occasionally waking up in the finales. Fortunately no Dvorak was on the programme and everyone seemed wide awake.

I'm not a hundred percent certain, but it's possible I haven't heard any Tippett in the concert hall since I first encountered the peerless concerto for double string orchestra about five years ago. That made the appearance of the Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage all the sweeter. It often seemed to call to mind features I love in the double concerto and the RSNO seemed on fine form for Davis. Hopefully it won't be so long until I next encounter some Tippett live. Sadly, even this was enough to raise the hackles of a small minority amongst Edinburgh's generally conservative audience for whom even this was too modern and who sat stoically refusing to applaud. Fortunately they were significantly in the minority.

Tippett was followed by Shostakovich's second piano concerto with John Lill. He gave a clear and lucid reading, and, impressively for such a large work, didn't feel the need to resort to thumping the keyboard. He, Lill and the RSNO gave us plenty of fireworks in the outer movements while providing a sublime reading of the adagio. Not, perhaps, Shostakovich's most profound work, but a pleasure to hear. (Note, I don't know the work well enough to comment, but I'm reliably informed that Lill got lost and was improvising for twenty or thirty bars in the finale.)

After the interval we were treated to Schumann's third symphony, the Rhenish. It's a nicely jolly work and they had plenty of fun with it. I always feel Schumann works best when played with plenty of drive and romanticism and my favourite recordings are those in the Bernstein mould, not least the man himself. Davis didn't go down that route, and yet for the most part it was success, if the first movement didn't quite have the lit and flow I'd like. True, the second movement really feel nearly a very moderate as marked, but in general it was an enjoyable reading and such minor quibbles didn't really get in the way.

Throughout, Davis seemed to be having a great deal of fun, with a huge grin spread across his face every time he turned to face the audience. It was a perfectly decent evening in the concert hall then, though as quality of this review (not one of my best) indicates, I think part of my mind and heart were still with the previous night's Bruckner which was still ringing in my ears twenty-four hours later.

Friday 22 January 2010

He cannot choose but hear, Runnicles hath his will - the BBC SSO play Wagner and Bruckner

A friend whom I ran into at last night's concert asked me afterwards how on earth I was going to write a review. It was a good question. Terrible things are pretty easy to review: you sit there getting crosser and crosser, making mental notes of all the clever things you can say later. When something is out of this world good, it's another matter. You don't want to be making a mental list of anything, lest you miss the magic that is going on in front of you. Then there's the vexed question of how in words you can possibly hope to sum up such a transcending experience, as the best artistic performances are, that takes you out of the concert hall, theatre, or opera house, to somewhere else entirely. Last night's concert from Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was one of the very greatest it has been my privilege to attend, and what follows is a pale shadow of an attempt to describe it.

The evening paired Wagner and Bruckner, a natural choice given the extent to which the latter idolised the former, however the choice of works was, perhaps, not the most obvious one. Runnicles presented the Siegfried Idyll in its most paired down, spartan orchestration, with solo strings. Indeed, I've rarely seen such small forces from the SCO, let alone the BBCSSO. The decision was justified by the detail and characterisation of the resulting performances as, in tricky and exposed parts, they acquitted themselves superbly. Runnicles take was light, airy, etherial; it was a thing of great beauty and of a scale where one could readily imagine the musicians being assembled to play it to the composer's wife. Yet at the same time I couldn't help but remember a recent Composer of the Week on Wagner which illustrated just how horrible he'd been to his first wife, not only cheating on her but then, when she called him on it, writing to tell her she was an awful and untrusting wife but that he forgave her for it. It was a strange irony. Still, it's the music not the man, and the music was lovely. It was also a particularly nice treat as we were robbed of hearing Runnicles do it at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival when new airline security rules kept the Orchestra of St Luke's out of the country.

All well and good then, but the Bruckner eighth that followed was something else altogether. There was not simply the glorious playing of the orchestra, but there were the incredible contrasts Runnicles provided between the mighty climaxes and the extreme pianissimos, so much so that even with the full orchestra he managed to recall the feeling of the first half's chamber ensemble. And yet it wasn't the unconnected series of repeated climaxes that Bruckner becomes in the wrong hands, instead it grew organically each time, fading away just as naturally again afterwards. This sense of structure permeated the reading which, at a little under an hour and a half, felt neither slow nor rushed but just right.

It wasn't just the thrilling fury in the opening of the finale. It wasn't just the tiny details Runnicles was able to tease out of the orchestra, or those magical moments that occur when a real chemistry exists between conductor and ensemble, such as one where he appeared to be almost pulling the music out of them like a thread. It wasn't just the glorious walls of sound they created, from the rich strings to the roaring brass, sweet winds and fine timpanic punctuation. It wasn't just that when the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra play for him, this already fine ensemble becomes the equal of just about any on the planet. It was all of that, and so much more. It was enough to take your breath away.

As Runnicles lowered his baton at the close of the first movement and a few people coughed or shifted in their seats, I found myself quite unable to move. I couldn't help thinking of the lines from The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner:

He holds him with his glittering eye -
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years' child:
The Mariner hath his will.

The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.

I don't think that I've ever, in my varied and compulsive concert going, had the music quite do that to me, at least not to that extent. Yet I was rooted to my comfortable seat as surely as the mariner to his stone: Runnicles had my will and I could not chose but hear as time and again the emotions he found in the music threatened to overwhelm. It was utterly compelling, draining and exhausting. It was astonishingly, out of this world, devastatingly good. It was the kind of performance that makes you need a drink in all the right ways. It was, pretty well indescribable; certainly I don't think it's within my powers to get closer than this, which only scratches the surface. Where was Runnicles? To the naked eye he was on the podium, to the ear and heart he was somewhere else altogether, fortunately he took us away with him.

As we left the concert hall we each looked at the other, neither knowing quite what to say. I can think of only one thing: more, please!

Then again, as someone who shall remain nameless remarked afterwards, it did nothing for him. But then Bruckner is one of those marmite composers. If you fall into my camp, for the love of God listen to the broadcast on Tuesday and hope someone has the sense to release it commercially.

Thursday 21 January 2010

BAFTA Nominations – Gentle analysis and very tentative predictions.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, James Cameron’s live action remake of Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest, aka lame CGI-fest Avatar, is top dog this year with a total of 8 BAFTA nominations. It undoubtedly deserves to win the Special Visual Effects award for mould-breaking work in that field, but it’s also fairly likely to clean up in all of the other technical categories – a shame, since its main competitor there, Neil Blomkamp’s intelligent and thrilling sci-fi drama District 9, is a much better film. And isn’t a remake of Fern Gully. Nevertheless, Avatar will probably walk away with Best Film and Best Director amongst its mountain of gold.

The most prevalent British film in the nominations list is An Education, which, though it hasn’t been a particularly visible force at the box office, is a compelling, funny and touching coming-of-age drama starring brilliant newcomer Carey Mulligan. And unlike many compelling, funny and touching coming-of-age dramas, it isn't a saccharine-powered schmaltz machine. Like Avatar, it’s managed to pick up 8 nominations, though one of these is the faintly patronising ‘Outstanding British Film’, and another is Best Make-up, which – whilst it’s very important to recognise the important work done by these skilled artisans etc. etc. – is never going to get the general public particularly fired up. Mulligan, I think, might have a fair chance of taking away the Leading Actress prize, although the likelihood is that Meryl Streep (Julie and Julia) will repeat her Golden Globe success. An Education has also provided Alfred Molina with a Supporting Actor nod, and this will be a category worth watching: he’s up against not only the terrific Christian McKay (Me and Orson Welles) but also the sublime Christolph Waltz, the smiling Nazi villain from Inglourious Basterds. Each of these chaps would be a worthy recipient of the gong, but my money’s on Christoph Waltz.

The Original Screenplay category is interesting. Alongside Up¸ Inglorious Basterds and A Serious Man – all of which are screenplays constructed with tremendous skill and originality, whether you love or loathe the final movies (and I love all three) – can be found Jon Lucas and Scott Moore’s The Hangover, which has to be the least original piece of writing to make it to the big screen last year. It’s unclear why anyone would want to nominate The Hangover for anything, but what little humour appeared in the finished product lay in performances; its clumsy structure, lame jokes and supermodel-thin characterisation deserve no plaudits. That’s right, British Academy, I called it like it is – wanna fight about it?

I haven’t seen Up in the Air, so I can only guess as to whether it’s strong enough to be a serious contender for Best Film, but I don’t think it will cause Avatar fans any concern. It could lead George Clooney to victory as Best Leading Actor, but I’m not in a position to speculate. I can only base my opinion on the trailer, which is awful. Or at least half of it is: in the first half it seems to be a smart, slick comedy, accompanied by a great soundtrack and George Clooney at his most likeably cool; the second half seems to be a humourless, schmaltzy TV movie. Watch it for yourself – the change happens at about 01:33.

I haven’t seen any films in the foreign language category, so umm... let’s move on.

It’s nice to see my two favourite films of 2009, In The Loop and Moon, get a couple of nominations each, though it’s frustrating they were buried in the subset of ‘British’ categories – you know, the remedial awards for those backwards little filmmakers without American money who’ve also – bless them – managed to come up with little films all by themselves... Both films can hold their own against Hollywood flicks, and inventing special categories so that Brits get take away something seems a touch odd.

Which brings me to a short coda on a not entirely unrelated topic: last night at the National Television Awards, Stephen Fry in America was crowned ‘Best Star Travel Documentary’. Now, Stephen Fry deserves many more awards than he could possibly have time to accept in his lifetime, but look at that title: Best Star Travel Documentary. This type of absurd specificity is only surely necessary if there’s also a gong for ‘Second-best Stationary Documentary Presented by a Minor Celebrity who Doesn’t Quite Qualify as a Star Yet’. But there isn’t. There isn’t even an award for plain old vanilla ‘Best Documentary’, a prize which, incidentally, Stephen Fry in America was also good enough to have won. Other peculiarities included the category of ‘Most Popular Talent Show’, and Ant and Dec’s winning of the highly distinct awards ‘Most Popular Entertainment Programme’ and ‘Most Popular Presenter of an Entertainment Programme’. The ‘Ant and Dec Award for Being Ant and Dec’ presumably went to Paul O’Grady. At least the BAFTAs haven’t yet become quite this silly.

Monday 18 January 2010

Monday Night Film Club - Up in the Air

It's always interesting how many of the people on my friends Caroline and Sharon's mailing list a given film will draw. Typically the number hovers around four or five and on occasion (Seven Pounds) has dipped as low as two and climbed as high as eleven (Slumdog Millionaire). Actually, in point of fact, the record is thirteen for Juno, but that was before my time; however, it bears mention since director Jason Reitman is also responsible for Up in the Air. Add to which the fact that it stars George Clooney and it is unsurprising we numbered ten.


The premise is simple, George Clooney criss-crosses the country, resulting in a beautiful opening sequence of intercut aerial images of America that is arguably the highlight of the film, as a man who is called in to fire people so that bosses don't have to deliver the bad news. Ryan's sole ambition seems to be to get to ten million frequent flier miles, as only six men before him have done. In the process he has cut off friends and family and lives out of one small and expertly packed suitcase. This is highlighted by his motivational speaking sideline where, using the analogy of a rucksack, he explains how weighed down we are. Things are shaken up by the Natalie (Anna Kendrick) who thinks to save money by firing people by video chat. She is promptly tethered to him to learn the trade. Refreshingly, the romantic subplot one might expect to materialise between them never does. That instead comes from fellow frequent flier Alex (Vera Farmiga), and the pair hit it off from the very start, as they attempt to outdo each other with their loyalty cards. Ryan's pride at his black American Airlines card is particularly fine, as he explains it's graphite not carbon fibre (I'm assuming that the producers realise those are the same thing).

It's not quite a comedy though. That's not to say there aren't plenty of amusing moments, but they're mainly more chuckles than laugh out loud funny. Ryan's smugness at cutting queues due to his status is nicely done, and then beautifully followed by his comeuppance when, at the small wedding hotel, he isn't a member of their obscure scheme and must himself queue. Then there is the sublime irony of Natalie's boyfriend dumping her by text message.

Some of the emotional aspects seem contrived, especially when his sister's fiance gets cold feet and Ryan is inexplicably the only person available to talk him round, which he then does with remarkably little difficulty. Much more poignant is the gnomes subplot, a nice reference to Amelie, where the happy couple ask to have their cardboard cutout photographed in exotic locations. He picks Lambert International, St Louis, from where the wright brother and Charles Lindberg flew, he also dashes across the country to get a prized Las Vegas shot. Yet his sister barely acknowledges the pictures. The budding relationship between Ryan and Alex is much more satisfying for most of the film, as he starts to want a different kind of life, and the two actors have excellent chemistry on screen, though it is spoilt by its rather predictable conclusion. Indeed, the final few minutes wrap things up rather too neatly and quickly.

All the leads turn in solid performances, and there are some nice cameos to be spotted among the workers to be fired, such as J K Simmons. It's a diverting and enjoyable film, if one that leaves you somewhat unsatisfied and feeling no pressing need to see it again.

Sunday 17 January 2010

Schiff, Elder, The Halle, Elgar's cello concerto and the tears in my eyes

If this CD hadn't been released back in 2004 it would unquestionably be one of my discs of 2009. As it is, it is one of the most satisfying purchases I've made in the last twelve months, a revelation of a familiar work and one I cannot recommend highly enough.


Heinrich Schiff digs deep in the opening chords, and yet without the melodrama that can sometimes be present here. More surprising, though, is the softness and delicacy that follows. However, something in its way more remarkable than Schiff's playing is going on, and that is Mark Elder's accompaniment. Beneath the soloist, the Halle, still with their rich, lush sound, are remarkably understated. Elder is putting the soloist absolutely front and centre.

Of course, that's not to say that he's afraid to turn up the volume when called for in the orchestral passages, but when he does this only seems to underscore and accentuate what Schiff is saying. Schiff's reading itself is beautifully judged, often remarkably delicate, and fully bringing out the yearning that pervades the opening movement. This is always an emotive piece, but somehow Schiff manages to tug on the heartstrings that bit harder and more often.

Then there is the edginess to Schiff's playing at the opening of the lento. There is something almost dangerous here. While it never settles down completely, it does have moving moments, especially when the big orchestral accompaniment comes in, providing a warmer contrast.

The beautiful adagio is also marked by Schiff's lightness of touch and Elder's sensitive and subtle accompaniment, but also by the general tenderness of his playing. Time and again one is struck by what a beautiful tone the soloist is capable of producing.

Something similar is going on in the finale, where it is tempting to describe Schiff's playing as nimble. Not swift, per se, but the same lightness that has marked the whole performance mixed with an impressively dextrous agility. At times both jolly and sad, riven with contrasting emotions though never in a way that is over the top. It is an immensely satisfying performance.

Throughout Elder displays superb judgment in support of his soloist. Never do their approaches seem at odds, or to possess different conceptions of the work, as is sometimes the case in concerto performances. Instead we are presented with a singularity of vision. The Halle's playing is never less than superb.

One of the most striking aspects of this recording is just how fresh this team make a very familiar work sound - take, for example, 4:30 on the finale, in comparison to which my other recordings feel almost stodgy. If you feel you know the work backwards, the energy and excitement of the finale may well have you questioning such assumptions.

This is a beautiful, addictive and highly moving reading. The quality of the recording is very good too, as seems standard on Halle issues. If you haven't already heard it, I cannot urge you strongly enough to do so. This may seem sacrilegious, but I think I prefer it to the legendary Du Pre/Barbirolli version on EMI. Du Pre may hold sway in the opening movement, where the sheer weight of emotion wrung from each bar is often devastating. But elsewhere, Schiff seems to have something altogether more interesting to say.

The disc also contains Elgar's Falstaff and an amusing little gem The Smoking Cantata. Both seem well enough played, but I know neither sufficiently to review the recordings. It doesn't matter: the concerto alone justifies the price of admission.

Saturday 16 January 2010

The train wreck of a travesty that is Popstar to Opera Star, as it happened, tweet by tweet

If you want a reasoned critique of why this is a outrage, there are plenty to choose from (such as this from Gert, or this from Opera Britannia). I don't want to rehash those same points, instead, find my tweet by tweet account of the action (albeit delayed a few hours as I was at a proper concert during the live broadcast).

Warning, the following may contain traces of irony:

God - the opening titles are not ever over and I fell ill! #popstarstooperastars

"two of the greatest in the business"? I wasn't aware Katherine Jenkins and Rolando Villazon were in the same business...

Someone please put Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen out of my misery

"It's not something people can just say, oh I'll do that today" says Meatloaf. Indeed not. Which does beg a rather obvious question......

There are some things one should never have to see/hear Jimmy Osmond do if one ever wants to sleep again #popstarstooperastars

Thank god for this bottle of 21 year old single malt scotch! #popstarstooperastars

@Kateviola glad to return the favour for everyone's tweets I enjoyed earlier

@STManson You would be right. I think I'd only enjoy Detroit with the sound muted!

"I never thought I'd be singing opera" - dear, you're not now.

Tonight's whisky came from the now defunct Imperial distillery in Speyside, distilled on 2/11/89, aged in a bourbon barrel....

It was bottled on 1/10/08 (bottle number 43 out of 285). Interesting light natural colour and going down rather nicely

@ClassicalReview the girl from hearsay

@OperaBritannia unfortunately I don't own a firearm!

@OperaBritannia which is probably just as well considering

Ah, and I see they've picked the Dies Irae from Verdi's well known opera 'Requiem' as the link music in and out of the add breaks

@benjammin22 ah Talkisker, my favourite, always good (but the bottle is close to finished and I feared the consequences if it ran out!)

Hey, I must not be paying attention. How come I never see an electric keyboard in the orchestra pit normally (well, John Adams aside)

I don't know which is more painful - Danny Jones's voice or that pink jacket with the black lapels - stylish!

@ClassicalReview sorry, I can't help myself!

As Meatloaf stands up and pontificates the whole thing has a quite charming Jerry Springer Show quality to it

"opera is just being on your own". I wonder what all these things I've been going to with the huge casts are?

On a serious note, even amplified, these voice are so weak there's not a one of them who wouldn't get booed in a real performance

"Britain's greatest talent, Katherine". Sorry, come again! I nearly spat out my whisky. Maybe Darius means talent in a non-musical sense

Darn - that's the problem with watching the repeat - I can't spend 50p on the telephone voting. Awww shucks!

I tell a lie - I can still be charged for voting, it just wouldn't count!

Hmmm, I'm not familiar with this lieder singer 'special guest' Camilla Kerslake or her repertoire....

Oh, my digibox has failed to record the last few minutes. Now I'll never know who was kicked off the show. Ah well!

Wow - if I tune in next week Katherine Jenkins will be performing live. How will I sleep between now and then????

Oh no, I've just realised, I won't be able to catch Katherine Jenkins live on #popstartoopera star next week, I have tickets for @RSNO

@mlaffs she wasn't actually singing this week (at least, I assume she wasn't trying to - it is quite hard to tell!)

@Gert thanks (actually I went over to the ITV website to catch the end that way). I think I need help

@mlaffs ah, I see. Well I suppose it would be that she is actually famous for not being able to actually sing opera properly

This concludes @wheresrunnicles' live-tweeting of my time delayed viewing of #popstartooperastar. Catch it here:

Possibly to be repeated next week, if I have any quips left. If you fancy experiencing the car crash for yourself, get out the scotch and head here.

Still, the quality tweeting on display from serious arts fans was a sight to behold (check it out). I'm reminded of something Marcus Brigstocke once said, in reference to David Blaine:

I have never been prouder of the British public... The depth of cynicism that we can stoop to within mere moments of an idiot doing something idiotic that isn't for charity is truly magnificent.

Faure's Requiem, Ravel's La valse and Deneve's curious RSNO programme

I was very much looking forward to last night's RSNO concert: Deneve tends to be at his very best in French repertoire, added to which I've never heard Faure's Requiem live. Something of a surprise was in store, however. No, not the the fact that still, five months after reopening, the temporary laminated signs in the Usher Hall still display incorrect seat numbering (though for reasons passing understanding they do), rather the programme order. The Requiem, the work featuring organ, full chorus and children's choir, that renowned curtain raiser, or, rather, the work that one would normally expect to find at the end of the concert, was kicking things off.

They played it very beautifully and delicately, of course, with fine singing from the RSNO chorus and youth choir, and it was wonderful to hear the hall's organ in full swing. Soloists Lisa Milne and Christopher Maltman turned in fine performances too. Deneve had bunched the strings almost all together on the left, though this didn't seem to adversely affect the balance of the orchestral sound. True Faure's Requiem doesn't have the out and out fire of Verdi's or the overt sense of drama that pervades Brahms'. Yet, when well performed, as it was under Deneve, it remains a profoundly moving and powerful work. But like all great requiems it feels like a final word, and as it ends you just want to go home. It belonged in the second half. Perhaps the choir wanted an early night, perhaps it was prompted by some logistical question (they are taking it to Amsterdam on Sunday), or perhaps Deneve had some obscure yet compelling artistic reason.

However, if he did, he shared it neither in his introduction to the programme, nor in his customary, rambling and not terribly enlightening talk after the interval (he might perhaps take a hint from the lack of enthusiasm which greeted his "good evening" and stick to the conducting). Instead he introduced the first of two works that sat rather oddly in the second half. Even had the order been reversed, they still did't seem good partner's for the Requiem. First up was Roussel's third symphony. Again, this was well played. It also provided plenty of the sorts of orchestral fireworks that Deneve generally carries off with great flare. At the same time, though, it was a rather unremarkable and forgettable piece.

They closed with Ravel's La valse. This too was nicely played, and is nice enough as a piece, though there are much finer works by Ravel and ones that better showcase his genius for orchestration. It too has its thrills. Yet while the second half might have had more volume or bombast, it didn't have the nearly the power or the emotion of the first. Added two which, two party pieces just don't sit quite right with a requiem. The result was a weirdly unbalanced and unsatisfying programme, despite the strong performances.

They gave us the Farandole from Bizet's L'Arl├ęsienne as an encore. To carry off something like this requires an exceptionally tight ensemble and at the start they weren't quite there, though things improved markedly, culminating with a stunning turn by principal flautist Katherine Bryan (who deserved to be brought individually to her feet by Deneve but wasn't).

Fortunately, their next requiem, Britten's in April, has the programme all to itself so we shouldn't have the same problem.

Friday 15 January 2010

Magnificent Mozart and Sublime Strauss from Mackerras, Vlatkovic and the SCO

As he enters his 85th year, one always feels lucky catching Sir Charles Mackerras on the podium. Only last August illness robbed us of his last visit to Edinburgh to conduct Haydn's The Last Seven Words of our Saviour on the Cross. Then last week it was announced that, due to health reasons, Richard Armstrong would take his place recording Ariadne auf Naxos with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for Chandos's Opera in English series. Fortunately, he did not pull out of tonight and tomorrow's concerts as well. And though the years showed when walking to and from the podium, once seated there (as he remained throughout), with your eyes closed, you'd never have known an octogenarian was in charge.

The programme opened with Mozart's 35th symphony, Haffner. A choice no doubt prompted by their stellar success with this area of the repertoire both in concert and on disc, and also as a preemptive plug of their latest recording project. Whatever the reason, though, it was a fabulous curtain raiser. Mackerras's tempi were generally brisk, verging on breakneck in finale, but the orchestra held to them seemingly effortlessly, with crisp and tight playing. As always, when Mackerras does tackles this period with the SCO, horns and trumpets were on natural instruments, giving a nice additional colour to the sound. Perhaps most interesting was the beautiful slow movement; hardly slow, it might almost have been described as sprightly, and yet none of the beauty was lost in the process. Add to this Peter Whelan's superb bassoon work, and the generally excellent orchestral playing, and it made for something very special. Elsewhere, Mackerras made the most of the orchestra's formidable dynamic range, switching them instantly between extremes and thereby providing a wonderful sense of excitement and surprise in music that can too often feel overly familiar. So intimate, sometimes, did the relationship between conductor and orchestra seem, that it was almost as though he was directing a string quartet. Suffice to say, I cannot wait for the March 15th release date of the new CD (which features Nos. 29, 31 Paris, 32, 35 Haffner and 36 Linz).

Mozart was paired, for the rest of the evening, with Strauss. If you are wondering, as I was, whether this is a natural choice, Mackerras and the SCO surely proved so. They were joined by horn player Radovan Vlatkovic for Strauss's first concerto (he appeared with the SCO last year for both concerto and a chamber performances). He proved, if anything, an even more impressive soloist this time round (though perhaps helped by Strauss's writing being superior to Swensen's), giving an unmannered reading and having a nice tone and a pleasing lack of cracked or fluffed notes. There was something very engaging about his manner as, utterly absorbed by the music, he stepped and turned this way and that at the front of the stage, so much so that the first violins had to shift their seats back slightly during a few bars rest (which they managed without missing a beat). Mackerras took the orchestra to the very edge of the comfortable volume limit for the Queen's Hall without ever quite crossing it. Yet, as always, he remained the most sensitive of accompanists. Orchestrally it was a clean and generally light performance and not too overwrought as Strauss can sometimes be, instead beautifully fluid and lyrical. It is a work with which I need to acquaint myself better.

After the interval they rounded off the evening with Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Arguably the finest orchestral playing of the night was on show here, yet at the same time they had plenty of fun with the score. There was, for example, wonderfully vivid characterisation in the Dance of the Tailors. Particularly impressive was how rich a sound was obtained, despite the significantly paired down strings. Above this was some exceptional solo playing, first and foremost from guest leader Bradley Creswick (moonlighting from the Northern Sinfonia), but cellist David Watkin and violist Jane Atkins also shone brightly. They carried off the finale with great aplomb, and a rare variety of percussion for an SCO concert, making the out of place waltz seem the most natural thing in the world.

All in all, it was a very fine evening. Those who reside in or near Glasgow should catch the repeat tomorrow. Everyone else should tune their wireless to Radio 3 on Tuesday evening to catch the broadcast of that performance (or visit the iplayer thereafter).

One final note, guest principal bass Nikita Naumov also impressed me. He seemed to have a degree of the drive and showmanship that make David Watkin such an engaging player to watch. Nicholas Bayley (who recently defected to the BBC SSO) left big shoes to fill, but the SCO could do an awful lot worse.

Thursday 14 January 2010

A Four Star Elektra

Strauss's Elektra was one of my great discoveries at the Edinburgh International Festival. Unbelievably, considering how much opera I go to, I only heard it for the first time when McMaster chose it to open his final Festival in 2006. I was totally blown away. This is a savage, bitter, biting score that builds to a quite extraordinary climax. After that I waited eagerly for a staged production and was, if anything, even more impressed by the recent Covent Garden revival which featured a magnificent performance by Susan Bullock in the title role. So the London Symphony Orchestra's concert performance under their Principal Conductor Valery Gergiev had a lot to live up to.

The first plus of this concert was that I think I have finally cracked the problem of the Barbican Hall acoustics. I have always had problems, especially being so used to the extremely resonant sound you get in Edinburgh's Usher Hall, with the Barbican's much deader acoustic. Tonight, for I think the first time, I sat in the Balcony which is not only very cheap but seems to boast a warmer sound than the next tier down. The view is just as good too.

On to the performance itself. I thought before going that this ought to be the kind of piece for which Gergiev is suited. Not living in London, I have not heard him very often but, despite his reputation, his performances have been patchy. I heard a Mahler six at the Sage, Gateshead, which was loud throughout and gave me a headache, by contrast a King Roger and some Prokofiev and Rachmaninov excerpts in Edinburgh which were both stunning. I anticipated Elektra falling into the latter category, but in the end Gergiev's interpretation was a little below that for my money – and not as powerful as Mark Elder's performance at Covent Garden. This is not to say that there wasn't some superb playing (probably the best I have ever heard live from this orchestra) but as with his Mahler six, Gergiev didn't to my mind quite grasp the full shape of the piece. All the climaxes were suitably loud and staggering but there was not enough of a relationship constructed between them – the flow was not sufficiently there. It should be said that he was hampered by some clunkiness in terms of managing the offstage interruptions – there were some slight delays which seemed to break up the flow at key moments (for example the killing of Clytemnestra).

Compared to Edward Gardner's balancing of voices and orchestra in Edinburgh (always a problem in concert performances of opera, and the more so in a work with so huge an orchestra – 112 players according to the programme) Gergiev again was not as successful. I don't recall Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet struggling to be heard there, and when the orchestral level was reduced the quality of the performance argued against a vocal problem.

Despite their battle with the orchestra, the line up of principals was excellent. Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet's acting was superb (although I missed the full length collapse on the stage which signalled the climax in Edinburgh). Angela Denoke provided an excellent foil as her sister, Chysotemis, and her voice soared over the orchestra throughout. As the third of this trio of terrifying women, Felicity Palmer, while not having quite the sonorousness in the “Warum” monologue that I remember from Leandra Overmann in Edinburgh, was piercing, crabby, and scary by turns, and again acted her socks off. Of the men Ian Storey was not as good as I have heard him on other occasions, but Matthias Goerne gave a mesmerising performance in his pivotal scene with Charbonnet – one of the most noticeable places where the singers performance was not driven home as it could have been by Gergiev's direction.

Overall then, superb orchestral playing, as good a line up of principals as one could hope for, and a conductor who just needs to do a little more work on the bits between the climaxes.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Film review - Nine

Nine, dir. Rob Marshall, The Weinstein Company, cert. 12A on general release.

Cinema and musical theatre can be uncomfortable bedfellows. Indeed, in the last decade we've endured such catastrophic train wrecks (I'm talking about you, The Producers, Phantom of the Opera, Rent), that one sometimes wonders if it's really worth trying. Beautiful, soaring poetry becomes cheesy twaddle when transferred to the screen, subtle theatre performers become hideous overactors in close-up, and a perfectly paced theatrical script can make for a tedious screenplay. And that's before you get to the seriously screwed-up stuff, like the sound of Pierce Brosnan singing.

Thankfully, Rob Marshall – director of 2003's solid cinematic rendering of Kander and Ebb musical Chicago – has a good feeling for the language of film, and once again proves himself a safe pair of hands with Nine, a worthy if not earth-shattering addition to the canon of film-musicals. Hardcore fans of the stage musical might be perturbed (well, actually they'll probably be apoplectic, the default setting for hardcore fans) to find that about half of Maury Yeston's original score has been excised, and the story jumbled about somewhat. It makes for better pacing, though, and just goes to show that a bit of careful butchery can be a lot more effective than slavish adherence to the original.

It's the mid-1960s, and Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido Contini, a charismatic yet complex Italian film director who is suffering creative block just days away from beginning shooting on a new film. At the same time, he's having the sort of woman trouble you'd expect of someone so charismatic, complex and Italian. While he desperately tries both to write his script and to keep his wife (the excellent and lovely Marion Cotillard) from discovering his mistress (the marginally less excellent but even lovelier Penelope Cruz), he begins to conjure up visions. These fantasies of his dead mother, of himself as a young boy and of all the significant women in his life (each whom he idolises in a fairly creepy way), take the form of elaborate musical numbers. Here, Rob Marshall repeats his signature trick from Chicago, cutting between simultaneously unfolding parallel realities, one spoken and one musical, so that the drama never grinds to a halt to fit in a song.

It comes as no surprise that, throughout all this, Day-Lewis' performance is engaging and real, and he is able to make charming a somewhat unlikeable character. He brings genuine passion and energy to his singing, and if his voice isn't the most beautiful in the world, it's all the more compelling because of it. Indeed, acting trumps singing throughout the cast, and that's no bad thing.

The score itself is pleasant if unremarkable; only the cheerful anthem Be Italian (performed admirably by Fergie, with a surprisingly good full-chorus tambourine break) is really hummable. And the lyrics, whilst occasionally witty, are a little too on the nose for my liking.

Nine is an unusual musical, lacking the humour and vigour of Chicago, but at the same time not offering the psychological introspection of, say, Sweeny Todd either. I suspect it may have trouble finding an audience as a result. Where Mamma Mia recently had roaring success with menopausal women, who took their teenage daughters along for two hours of frothy escapist girl-power, Nine perhaps provides an opportunity for middle-aged dads to show their sons the lies, hypocrisy and barely concealed misogyny that make up a mid-life crisis: 'Look, son, this'll happen to you forty years, mark my... Oh my, isn't Penelope Cruz hot?'

VERDICT: Not exactly a toe-tapping triumph, but entertaining nevertheless.

Why Claim Technorati?

Technorati, effectively a directory of blogs, is never something I've bothered much about (after all, there is google). This is underscored by the fact that whenever I've looked for our site on it, little or nothing shows up.

However, the other day I noticed Creative Tourist's second top 25 arts blogs list. Initially I thought we'd dropped off the bottom. Then it turned out that we'd jumped from 23rd to 9th. Great, but why? Traffic didn't seem to be massively up.

It turns out that in November the Technorati data were unavailable and it was more based on google (I've always felt that having a blog hosted by google, as ours is, can only help in their search listings, in terms of ensuring we're promptly indexed). Doubtless, though, this was only temporary.

Now, since I'm not without ego, I headed over to Technorati to see if I could do anything to boost our score. Now, I like to think I'm pretty tech-savvy, but it isn't very clear. Apparently you have to 'claim' your blog in order for them to actually look at it (it's pretty well a one click operation to get google to index my blog, but hey ho). They helpfully provide an FAQ on blog claiming (though one that doesn't actually tell you how to claim your blog).

Well, it's a simple process: you just have to create an account (handing over your name and e-mail address), then access your account, scroll down a bit to a section called 'my claimed blogs' and enter your url. Then all you have to do is enter lots of details. Except we're still not done (if you're only interested in having your blog indexed by google you're already away with your feet up enjoying a nice cup of tea).

They then give you an authorisation code which you have to stick onto your blog. You can't just stick it into the page's header or footer, since it won't pick that up. It has to be a brand new post (hence this - AHSE2EGQK4S3 ). Actually, that's not strictly speaking true, but since the blogger feed doesn't seem to update when you revise a post, that's what I've had to do (it may be different on other services).

Even then you're not done. Oh no. Now your blog goes into a queue, waiting for a human being to check it isn't spam, never mind you've already had to type one of those silly code words and expend all this effort. Mindbogglingly efficient. I can see why the number of blogs listed is so minute in comparison to the number out there. Why would you use this when google just works (except if you're trying to boost your score in a ranking that uses them)?

So, a nice procedure then. All to try and ensure my ranking on a top 25 list. It's a little pathetic really....

Monday 11 January 2010

Jansons and the Concertgebouw's disappointing and overpriced Pictures at an Exhibition

It's not often one picks up a brand new CD that weighs in at under forty minutes. True, if you go back enough decades to the LP era it was commonplace, but not now. Some of the best albums ever issued are short: Ben Webster meets Oscar Peterson is a prime example and its genius is such that one doesn't feel in the least short changed. However, on classical CDs it's rarer, not least because when those old albums get a rerelease, it's easy to find something appropriate to fill them out with. For a new classical disc to be this short is pretty well unprecedented, and yet that's exactly what we have with the Concertgebouw's new own label disc:


Now, of course, you could argue that Pictures at an Exhibition is such a glorious work that it requires no companion. Yet a glance through the most recent copy of the Penguin Guide I have indicates that that isn't an argument anyone else has made. If you were going to make it, to then charge full price (the disc goes for £10.99) is bold, not least as this is a pretty competitive bit of the catalogue. Frankly, to justify its price tag, this needs to be just about the most amazing, and amazingly recorded, version of Pictures ever produced. It isn't, not on either count. (Note, this recording is of the Ravel orchestration. Throughout comparison will be to Giulini with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, my favourite recording.)

The first surprise is the dry and closed sound compared to what I've come to expect from this label, as a result the recording is lacking in clarity and detail. It's not bad by any means, but it's also not reference quality. True, sound is a little dry for Giulini too, but I don't get the sense there that I'm losing anything.

The second surprise is that the recording feels somewhat subdued. Even though Jansons is quicker than Giulini on paper, his reading feels sluggish in comparison, particularly in the Promenade and La grande porte de Kiev. Perhaps it's just that Giulini exudes a greater sense of energy.

There is some very fine playing on display from the Concertgebouw: the winds at the start of the Gnomus and Il vecchio castello are especially wonderful, as is the glorious brass playing in Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuyle. However, the Chicago have good playing too, but theirs is coupled with a certain flashiness which seems well suited to this work.

Generally, Jansons is at his finest and most insightful during the quieter and more subdued moments such as during Il vecchio castello. The recording not without its magical moments: there is a gloriously lumbering sense of momentum to Bydlo and in La cabane sur des pattes de poule his interpretation really catches fire in a way that has been lacking.

It is, in other words, a solid if not revelatory reading. If it was paired with another good performance, then it might well be worth acquiring. But it isn't. True, the couplings on DG's current issue of the Giulini recording are, frankly, forgettable; but that disc goes for just £5 and, if you shop around, can be had for less than half that. Giulini's earlier live mono account (with the Philharmonia) manages to squeeze in Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony as a filler!

I love the Concertgebouw, I love Jansons, and I love to support orchestra own labels. Sadly, though, I can't recommend this disc. It is one only for completists or those who want to relive the concert.