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.

EIF 2010 - The Cleveland Orchestra Part II

After Tuesday's disappointing Bruckner, Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra returned the following day for an altogether more successful second programme.  Welser-Möst has a lot of experience in the opera house and this showed both in his selection of works and the way he performed them.

Up first were two exerts from Korngold's Die tote Stadt: the prelude and Marietta's Lied.  These were well played and possessed much more of the style I recall from their visit six years ago.  There were nice dramatic touches, such as soprano Laura Aikin's first words coming from off-stage, then entering through the orchestra as they played.  She had a small voice, but it was well suited to the part and Welser-Möst and the orchestra accompanied her sensitively.

Berg's Lulu suite followed and was similar successful, though this time Aikin's entry nearly went awry as she knocked into one of the second violins.  When she sang, though, she gave a good performance, but I didn't find the piece quite so engaging.  Moving her up to the side of the organ gallery at the end was a nice touch.

Friday 20 August 2010

Sunset Boulevard, or if only the Lord could be a little less Lloyd Webberish

This review begins with a series of confessions.  I am a Sondheim not a Lloyd Webber man when it comes to the modern musical.  Consequently, prior to my weekend expedition with two Maine friends to the Ogunquit Playhouse I had only actually seen one Lloyd Webber show in its entirety.  This was Cats as the family Christmas outing quite a few years ago.  The show was well into its run, and did not grab us.  Indeed my most vivid memory of the evening is of my brother (then active on the technical side of things in the school theatre) casting a jaundiced eye on the Christmas tree lights which festooned the theatre and declaring loudly “The technical management of this theatre is appalling” - that is, there were a lot of dud bulbs.  However, I am always game to see a show I haven't seen, and one should always be willing to give composers the benefit of the doubt.  So off I went last Saturday to a matinee of Sunset Boulevard.

Here I have to make a further confession which is that not only is my view of Lloyd Webber in general jaundiced, but my view of Sunset Boulevard was somewhat prejudiced in advance by the cabaret duo of Kit and the Widow.  As aficionados will know one of their best numbers is a satire on Lloyd Webber entitled “You Too Can Write a Great West End Score, Steal it From Somebody Else” . This I have heard them introduce as follows - “We wanted to write a tribute song to the big tune in Sunset Boulevard, the trouble is we couldn't find one!”

Finally, in the manner of laying all my cards honestly on the table, I have to admit that I have never seen the film on which the musical is based.

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Elevator Repair Service - The Sun Also Rises

For a theatre company, Elevator Repair Service, have a slightly random name.  Still, we here at where's Runnicles are all in favour of random names.  Continuing the Americana flavour of this year's festival, this New York based ensemble had brought their adaptation of Ernest Hemmingway's The Sun Also Rises.  Running just shy of four hours with one interval it was a long slog, but ultimately well worth it.


The Sun Also Rises, Elevator Repair Service. (Photo: Mark Barton)

The story is that of American expatriate Jake Barnes, who works as a newspaper man in Paris, and the community of Americans and Brits who form his social circle.  Well, I say works, but to be honest there's precious little evidence of that; indeed, at one nicely judged moment in his office, his typewriter rattles on even after he has stopped miming the key presses.

EIF 2010 - The Cleveland Orchestra (Part I)

Hot on the heels of two excellent nights with Oramo and his Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, two more with a legendary orchestra from another continent looked set to be the sort of embarrassment of riches that only a festival can deliver.

I first met the Clevelanders on their last visit to Edinburgh back in 2004, on that occasion for three consecutive nights.  It was an extraordinary experience: the discipline and precision of the ensemble made them a visual sight to watch unlike any I'd seen before or any I've seen since.  This was matched by the quality of their playing.


Their programme started with a notable visual, though it was notable for the fact that chairs were cleared into stacks around the stage and just six members of the orchestra, conductor Franz Welser-Möst and organist Joela Jones were present.  They delivered three pieces by Charles Ives.  The first of these, Variations on 'America', for solo organ, made for a wonderful start.  Sharing its theme with God Save the Queen, it proved highly enjoyable, laced with wit and playfulness.  I always tend to feel the anthem itself is a poor piece of music, good only as musical whitewash for getting rid of music stuck in your head, except when I hear the fun that can be had making variations out of it, such as with Beethoven's set.  And so with Ives as he treated it to such styles as music hall, fairground organ and a polonaise.  The final variation, with it's low counterpoint, marked "as fast as the peddles can go", was especially good and gave Jones a chance to show what she could do.  Even better, it was an opportunity to hear the Usher Hall organ in its full glory.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Oramo and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra PLAY Nielsen and Wagner

Right from the moment I opened the Edinburgh International Festival programme back in March, one of the things that had me most excited was the two concert visit of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of their chief conductor Sakari Oramo.  The team have a wonderful chemistry and provided electrifying evenings on both their previous visits, for Bruckner's 1st symphony in 2006 and a programme of Janáček and Sibelius in 2008.

This time round they presented something a little more challenging.  Well, I say challenging; in point of fact the programme was nothing of the sort, but Nielsen is, it seems, enough to send a large chunk Edinburgh's conservative audience running for the hills.  More fool them: the mix of Wagner and Nielsen was extremely effective and the latter absolutely electrifying.

The first programme was particularly interesting since it represented, a rarity this, one where every work on the programme was new to me (I'm not sure how Nielsen has managed to pass me by, indeed, two concerts later I'm utterly baffled - I knew of him of course, but had never really explored his work).  They opened with Nielsen's Helios overture.  Beginning with a beautifully soft cello chord, it gradually built up, first with the horns (albeit with the odd cracked note).  It grew and sparkled and shone through some superbly and wonderfully textured orchestral playing before fading away to those cellos and then silence again.

Sunday 15 August 2010

EIF 2010 - Opera de Lyon's Porgy and Bess

The Gershwins' lushly scored and accessible tale of love, poverty, prejudice and murder always seemed a fine fit for new worlds theme of this year's Edinburgh International Festival.  Personally, I know the music best from Gil Evans' superb arrangements for Miles Davis, which we will hear later in the festival from the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.


The Gershwins’® Porgy and Bess.  (Photo: Stofleth)

Unfortunately, Opera de Lyon's production of the opera was something of a mixed bag.  On the plus side, the orchestra played their socks off under the baton of William Eddins and the score swung along nicely.  Too often when an opera company puts on works that have a lot in common with musical theatre the music can fall flat, but this did not happen.

The other highlight of the evening was Derrick Lawrence's superb Porgy which was powerful and well characterised and whose diction was superb, an achievement all the more impressive given he was singing from a seated position for the whole evening.

Saturday 14 August 2010

El Niño - The 2010 Edinburgh International Festival opening concert

As is his customer, Jonathan Mills took to the stage of the Usher Hall to introduce this year's festival, an innovation I rather like, and something you'd never have caught his predecessor Brian McMaster doing.  This year's theme is, of course, New Worlds, and in particular the Americas and Australasia; perhaps because of this, his focus seemed mainly on drama, dance and opera with the superb orchestral programme getting barely a mention.

To start the festival Mills had chosen very well indeed: John Adams' oratorio El Niño.  Knowing nothing about it, you could be forgiven for expecting a piece based on global weather systems, since that is where many will know the term from.  Actually, though, it's Spanish for "the boy", in this case Christ (the meteorological phenomenon shares the name as it usually manifests around Christmas).


Edinburgh International Festival 2010.  El Niño – Opening Concert: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / James Conlon – Conductor, Edinburgh Festival Chorus, National Youth Choir of Scotland, Jessica Rivera – Soprano, Kelley O’Connor – Mezzo soprano, Willard White – Baritone, Theatre of Voices.  (Photo: Peter Sandground)

Stylistically it is much as one would expect from Adams, with claustrophobic and often repetitive rhythms.  The results were compelling.  Time and again I heard shades of his Dr Atomic, especially the music in the lead up to the detonation of the first bomb.  Adams provided some great touches, such as the use of three countertenors together to voice the angels.  He had also chosen his settings well, mixing biblical texts with more modern pieces based on the bible.  Only the section concerning Joseph's reaction to who the father might be left me unconvinced, but then that aspect of the story never does.

Saturday 7 August 2010

Proms 2010 - Elder, the Halle and Lewis's 3rd Beethoven concerto

Note - this review is of the the concert broadcasts on Radio 3 and BBC 4.


Actually, it was the fourth concerto of Lewis's survey, but the third chronologically and the third concert.  Once again the partnership between conductor, soloist and orchestra seemed natural.  However, Elder's take on Beethoven was gentler than we've had from Bělohlávek and Nelsons and the result was quite a lyrical reading.  As ever, Lewis brought both wonderful clarity and poetry.  He also brought weight and intensity, especially at the outset of the first movement cadenza, but this didn't quite sit with the general tone of the reading.  Most successful was their sublime take on the slow movement, the orchestra's beautifully soft string playing fitting perfectly with Lewis's delicate touch; the movement's main climax was especially moving.  In the finale, as in the first movement, I think I would have preferred a conductor who revelled more in the surprises Beethoven's writing holds; Elder's accompaniment was a little straight laced for my taste, albeit very well played.  As a result, it slightly took the sheen off Lewis's immaculate playing.  It's interesting the way you can throw together a soloist, a conductor and orchestra each of whom you love, and yet somehow not be entirely satisfied.  Sadly the video director from the first concert seemed to be back on duty, intent on showing us Lewis's face far more than his fingers.  The first few concerts seem to have come in rapid succession and it's a bit of a wait now until the Emperor comes in September (when Deneve and the RSNO are on duty).

They had opened the programme with more John Foulds, a composer Donald Runnicles introduced me to on Tuesday, and another work that despite having been written decades ago was also getting its Proms premiere.  Again, it was slightly difficult to hear why.  Less overtly showy than the Dynamic Triptych, it nonetheless provided a nice curtain raiser, particularly due to the many opportunities it provided to show off the Halle's glorious string sound.  From a gentle and lyrical opening it built to a suitably grand finish.

Friday 6 August 2010

Proms 2010 - There's Runnicles with Cargill, the BBC SSO and Mahler's third symphony

Note: this is a review based on the concert broadcasts via Radio 3 and BBC 4.

It's nearly five years since I last heard Donald Runnicles conduct Mahler's epic third symphony with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.  That was at an Edinburgh festival concert, only the second time I had heard him live, and an utterly magical experience it was too, not least for the astonishing balance he achieved with the posthorn solo in the third movement.


How, then, would he fare with near identical forces five years later, the major change being Karen Cargill, a singer with whom Runnicles has collaborated frequently and to great effect, taking the mezzo role Birgitta Svenden sang last time round.

Things started well, with the eight horns playing as one.  He found a nice darkness to begin with, which is good as the summer has to march in from somewhere, yet even later on as the summer began to intrude the darkness was still present.  Runnicles also kept a solid grip on the music, ensuring it remained compelling and didn't sprawl as this vast work, the longest Mahler wrote, all too easily can.  This was the case nowhere more so than when he slowed the orchestra to an absolute crawl about five minutes before the close of the first movement, ratcheting up the tension to almost unbearable levels.  Elsewhere it was a bubbling, seething and turbulent movement, calling to mind what makes his Atlanta Beethoven 9 so riveting.  There was some fine playing from the orchestra and Runnicles did well at bringing out the infinite variety of Mahler's orchestration, a fitting expression perhaps for a work so concerned with nature.  His trademark attention to detail was on display too: how much experimentation had gone into muffling the trumpets like that, with cloths draped over the bells, in the finale?  Credit too to the BBC's engineers who ensured it was well captured; a particularly nice balance was achieved with the percussion.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Proms 2010 - There's Runnicles, with Foulds, Vaughan Williams and Elgar

Note - this is a review of the concert as broadcast on Radio 3.

Time was, and it was only a couple of years ago, that it was a rare sight to catch Donald Runnicles performing in the UK.  So rare, in fact, that websites were given names playing upon the fact (okay, one website).  Now, some three and a half years later, here he is, conducting two Proms concerts on consecutive nights a few weeks before he is due to give another two completely different programmes at the Edinburgh international festival.  Such, indeed, is the embarrassment of riches, that for once your correspondent didn't feel the need to make a mad dash south to catch the Proms.  Having heard the first from a distance, I'm already slightly regretting that.

Joined by pianist Ashley Wass, Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra opened the programme with a piece by unjustly little known composer John Foulds.  Or, to put it another way, with a piece, Dynamic Triptych, which despite being written more than 80 years ago, was receiving its Proms premiere.  Having heard it, it's difficult to understand why.  Wass's strong and glittering solo playing in the opening movement was matched perfectly by the orchestra, creating a rich and evocative sound world.  Perhaps most remarkable was the central movement, at times somewhat otherworldly as they produced some wonderful string sounds, sometimes seemingly in slow motion.  The piece had a sense of playfulness too, especially in the finale which built to a thrilling climax, nicely underscored by some great low brass sounds.  The piece hung together very well, having a strong narrative feel.  Would that we heard it in concert halls more often.

Foulds was followed by two pieces from Vaughan Williams, one either side of the interval.  I must confess that I'm not the greatest fan of the composer and in the wrong hands I find his music can be a little dull.  Not so with Runnicles and the BBCSSO playing the Serenade to Music.  Rich and shimmering textures from the orchestra were complimented by some fine singing provided by members of the RSAMD (another fruit of the collaboration between the two institutions).  Voices were balanced nicely and the result was captivating.  Together the provided both some fine climaxes and a nice fade away to silence at the end.

Monday 2 August 2010

Proms 2010 - Sondheim at 80, or I am singing Sondheim but you are playing Mantovani

Note: This is a review of the concert via the BBC iplayer. BBC Engineers might do something about the fact that Part 1 breaks off with the opening bars of "A Weekend in the Country" which concludes in the Interval Feature.

Anniversaries have been a staple of Proms programming for some years so it was perhaps inevitable that Roger Wright's eye should alight on Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday year as a fitting moment to devote a whole Prom to his work. Such an enterprise however immediately presents a number of difficulties. Firstly, Sondheim's numbers are specifically not written to be performed out of context, and they almost inevitably lose something when so performed. Secondly, the danger of letting a symphony orchestra loose on musical theatre is that it will fail to grasp the idiom. This Prom just about got away on the first count, but was largely floored by the second.

The performance actually started remarkably well. The “Instructions to the Audience” from The Frogs are a bit cliched, but Simon Russell Beale is such a masterful deliverer of any line that he made me laugh heartily. Unfortunately it was largely downhill all the way from then on. The main reason for this was the partnership of David Charles Abell and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Having read Abell's biography in the on-line programme (one of the excellent things the Proms website provides – one rather wishes Radio 3 would do this year round for concerts) I find it difficult to work out why he'd been selected for the honour. He doesn't appear ever to have conducted a full-length Sondheim show – although he has one or two coming up. This inexperience shows. Sondheim's sound world is wistful, edgy, biting – you cannot simply have an orchestra luxuriating in its various solos. Abell's tempi where almost universally too slow (a common failing in this kind of performance – compare Simon Rattle's recording of Bernstein's Wonderful Town with the recent Broadway revival recording), and the violins in particular seemed to imagine they were performing lush Mantovani arrangements rather than bittersweet Sondheim. At times Abell was simply completely out of his depth, the unbelievable pause as he tried to get from Henrik's sermon-like solo in “A Weekend in the Country” back into the patter counterpoint being an especially glaring example of a gear change gone wrong. The performance of the starry line-up of soloists against this unhelpful accompaniment was variable. The standout, by a country mile, in the first half was Dame Judi Dench performing “Send in the Clowns”, here Abell and the orchestra wisely followed Dame Judi wherever she wished to go even seeming to realise that it was possible to play quietly. At the other end of the spectrum were two lousy performances from Julian Ovenden in Too Many Mornings and Agony. Ovenden fell down on two counts. First, despite so far as I can judge from his bio being British by birth he insisted (in contrast to just about everybody else involved) on putting on an American accent which just grated badly. Secondly, he achieved the remarkable feat of making “Agony” the fairy tale duet for the two love-sick princes hopelessly unfunny.