Wednesday 21 December 2011

Highs and Lows of 2011

We've reached that time when the critics start picking their best and worst shows of 2011. For those which I've awarded prizes to, I have (I hope) also created links to my original reviews...

Best Opera: This is a tie between Glyndebourne's new Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and the Mariinsky's Die Frau ohne Schatten which came to Edinburgh in August. Gerald Finley and Vladimir Jurowski were the stars of the former, the latter was a genuine company triumph.

Worst Opera: The Coliseum had a generally diabolical year in the first half of 2011, but the worst of the lot was unquestionably Christopher Alden's silent play with music by Benjamin Britten and words by William Shakespeare (in other words the god-awful A Midsummer Night's Dream). Another blogger recently described it as “anathema to loyalists to an Aldeburgh that never was” (boulezian). Never having known Aldeburgh in Britten's time I can only say that it committed the worst crime in my operatic book by being a production totally contrary to the spirit and meaning of the text (and most of the time the music). Running it a close second was the company's almost as awful Lucrezia Borgia the Film.

Saturday 17 December 2011

Where's Runnicles' favourite recordings issued in 2011

Last year, when I rounded up my favourite discs, I felt pretty spoilt for choice. I don't feel quite the same this year, yet there are still a good few things worth highlighting. As with last year, I accompany this post with a Spotify playlist (on which all but one of the discs are available). For multidisc sets, I have only included a few highlights. We'll begin with the disc I hoped for at the end of last year's post.

Charles Mackerras may have died in 2010, but there continues to be a steady stream of recordings, mostly live concert tapings, bearing his name. The finest of these is, for me, his recording of Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony with the Philharmonia. I've written about this already and have little to add. The performance made for a memorable concert and the CD is equally fine, whether it be the energy the eighty-three year old brings to the third movement, or the emotional weight they find in the finale.

Saturday 19 November 2011

There's Runnicles, with highlights from Der Rosenkavalier and the return of Vilde Frang

High on the list of Donald Runnicles' many talents is his skill as an opera conductor. It is therefore good news when the BBC SSO programme something that enables him to showcase this. Like last year's Wagner, we once again didn't get a full opera, but the selection they presented from Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier was no less satisfying for it.

The hour or so of music that Runnicles had chosen both contained key highlights, such as the presentation of the rose, but also preserved the core narrative and flowed convincingly in dramatic terms. In addition, his keen sense of theatre ensured that the singers acted rather than just standing on stage, so, to take one example among many, we saw poignant glances back towards Octavian from Twyla Robinson's Marschallin as she exited.

The cast of singers assembled, which also included Lucy Crowe as Sophie and Daniela Sindram (appropriately costumed for her trouser role) was hard to fault, unless of course you particularly missed the male parts, which had been edited out entirely.

Monday 31 October 2011

ETO's Flavio, or A Fine Evening of Emotionally Engaging Handel

A successful Handel production requires a number of things and English Touring Opera's Flavio has them all. To begin with, you need a director and a conductor who understand the point of a da capo aria. Far too often, Handel operas are ruined by directors who conclude that a da capo aria is dull and therefore feel impelled to impose a lot of pointless business on it, and by musical directors who aren't able to conjure the necessary shape and changes of mood. Fortunately neither director James Conway nor conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny fall into these traps. Conway consistently directs his principals with intelligence. He understands that these arias must be allowed to tell their stories, that you have to work with Handel's pacing not ignore it. In the pit Kenny has the right sense of colour and movement to bring each number musically alive through the medium of the consistently fine playing of The Old Street Band.

Such sensitivity from director and conductor would avail nought if the principals themselves were not up to the challenge. Fortunately they are, espcially at this performance where the challenge for two of them was mulitiplied well beyond what any soloist should expect to need to cope with in an evening at the opera. In the supporting roles Mark Wilde (Ugone) and Andrew Slater (Lotario) do a nice job of flouncing and obeisance with Slater especially fine in his aria in Act Two commanding his daughter Emilia (Paula Sides) to reject the man she loves. Clint van der Linde as Flavio is a suitably ghastly monarch. Moving on to the lovers, Kitty Whately (Teodata) gives a beautifully characterised performance of the flirt, briefly seduced by the idea of becoming queen, who nevertheless proves faithful to her lowlier lover in the end. Among many beautifully judged moments, I was moved by the aria in which her lover is forced, a la Cyrano, to woo her in the King's name. Jake Arditti (Guido), the male half of the other couple sang the fast sections of his arias very well but tended to disappear beneath the band in the B sections (though this may have been a problem of balance which in the Stalls at the Theatre Royal, Lincoln, is not always perfect). However, the standout performance of the night came from Paula Sides as Emilia and Vitige. Before you ask, this is not a normal doubling. It was announced at the start of the evening that Lina Markeby was suffering a throat infection and that Sides and Whately would share the singing from off-stage, while the Assistant Director Anna Tolputt would act the role on stage. For Sides in particular this was assuming a heavy amount of singing with arias off-stage several times being followed by arias on. To her credit there was no sense of strain, or loss of power in her depiction of Emilia which was beautifully sung and very moving.

Saturday 29 October 2011

Sakari Oramo and Anu Komsi kickstart the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Sibelius cycle

In the annals of mad Where's Runnicles dashes in search of high culture, Friday's trip to London to hear Sakari Oramo conduct some Sibelius is probably only edged off the top spot only by a mid-festival literally flying visit to the Proms in 2007 to hear the man himself conduct Götterdämmerung. (Certainly at 25 hours between departures, it edges out my brother's trip to hear Louis Lortie's extraordinary Liszt at Snape of which, with hindsight, I am extremely jealous.) Originally, I had intended to stay in London all weekend, but then I discovered James Lowe was to conduct the Rose Street Ensemble in Edinburgh on Saturday in a programme including Poulenc's organ concerto. Being a big fan of both Lowe and the RSE, this was not to be missed either.

Why on earth would you want to know any of that? I mention it to underscore just how exciting a prospect I think the opportunity to hear Oramo in Sibelius is - namely that it's worth a trip that in effective terms probably made mine the most expensive ticket in the hall. I also say it because, with a not especially full hall, I wonder if some of London knew what they were missing. Indeed, I'm doubly envious as this is the second Sibelius cycle the city has enjoyed in the last couple of years (not too long ago the LPO did one under Osmo Vanska), whereas we haven't had one in Scotland since 2006 (though we are getting a couple of symphonies this year).

Sibelius didn't arrive until the second half of the concert, which instead opened with Arnold Bax's Tintagel, named for a village on the Cornish coast. From the powerful and glittering opening onwards, through the satisfyingly swelling climaxes, Oramo made a powerful case for the composer. The piece contains some fine writing, particularly the surging strings, fittingly evocative of the sea. Indeed, visual stimulation is a quality the piece shares with much of Sibelius's output, if not perhaps quite so strongly. There are other nice touches too, such as some fine brass fanfares. The piece does sprawl a little, though Oramo kept a tight rein on it. All in all, it made an effective start to the evening.

Friday 28 October 2011

The Where's Runnicles Album of the Week - Thomas Dolby's A Map of the Floating City

"There is nothing new under the sun"

So, at least, Thomas Dolby claims at the outset of his first new studio album in two decades (it should be noted at the outset that Dolby is our uncle, earning this post a Shameless Plugs tag). Slightly tongue in cheek, no doubt, yet as he repeatedly shows in a little under an hour, he has plenty more to say.

The album is divided into three sections and much of the content will be familiar, if, that is, you're a hardcore fan. Over the past fifteen months Dolby has released two of the three as EPs, and while Urbanoia is genuinely new I heard at least one of the songs at a gig a couple of years ago.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Sergiu Celibidache's extraordinary Bruckner

I've long been curious about Sergiu Celibidache's Bruckner. I've seen plenty of rave reviews, but these same reviews also point to extreme tempi and suggest this is Bruckner that won't be to all tastes. Yet he certainly seems to have his fans, as evidenced by the fact that the now deleted survey is selling for £270 on Amazon! If you haven't spat out absolutely all of whatever it is you were drinking, you might like to know that some of them are available individually: the 6th and 9th can be had for £60 and £50 respectively. While I was certainly curious to hear what the fuss was about, I wasn't that curious. Yes, there is a more readily available set on DG that dates from an earlier period but it is, by all accounts, less extreme and doesn't attract quite such intriguing praise. Thankfully, Spotify rides to the rescue and some time ago I found the set there, saved it to a playlist for later listening, and promptly forgot about it.

Then, a few weeks ago, I found myself sorting the myriad of such playlists into some kind of order with the idea of actually starting to work through them. For whatever reason, it was Celibidache's Bruckner which jumped out at me; now I find myself wondering why on earth I waited so long. These recordings are quite remarkable.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Ticciati and the SCO open their season with the Symphonie Fantastique

Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique is popular these days, Robin Ticciati's outing with the SCO being, by my reckoning, the third in the Usher Hall in the last twelve months (though I attended the Glasgow performance). In many ways it was the most successful, certainly trumping Dutoit's overly hard driven account at the festival. Indeed, go back only a little further and all three of Scotland's main orchestras have performed it with their present chief conductors.

Ticciati brought a nice dreamlike quality to the opening, but also plenty of drama, not to mention the fierce and impressively precise attack of the strings. Then there was the ball of the second movement, which danced along nicely, building an ever more intense and frantic energy as it progressed. That said, I would have preferred a slightly broader tempo at the outset, allowing the harps in particular a little more room to bloom. There were small quibbles with the third movement too; not with the rich cor solo from Rosie Staniforth, but rather the answering oboe of Robin Williams. This was fine in all but its location: not placing it offstage rather punctures the poignancy of the cor's final unanswered calls. You couldn't, however, complain much about the final two movements, thick with excitement and drama, vividly descending into drug fuelled madness as Ticciati drove the orchestra on to the thrilling conclusion.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Here's Runnicles, with Beethoven, Strauss and Elgar

Time was when you had to wait a couple of years for the chance to hear Donald Runnicles conduct in Scotland; nowadays you can easily hear him twice in a week (indeed, three times if you fancy a trip to Aberdeen and don't mind hearing one of the concerts a second time).

After MacMillan's St John Passion in Glasgow, Sunday night in the Usher Hall saw a more conventional programme. At its head was Beethoven's Egmont overture. From the grandeur and weight they brought to the opening bars onwards, this proved to be a fine curtain raiser. Heft early on was balanced by a lightness of touch elsewhere. Add to that the ferocious attack of the strings and the thrilling excitement of the finale and it was just what was needed to get the pulse racing.

Strauss's Four Last Songs, something of a Runnicles favourite, followed. The performance had a lot in common with that which they gave at the Proms recently. There was the same well judged and richly textured orchestral playing, but unfortunately there was also a similar weak link: the soloist. Michaela Kaune's voice was rather thin and generally didn't ride well over the orchestra (in fairness to her, I was under the overhang in the dress circle and while I don't think this causes problems with orchestral sound, I think it may not be ideal for voices). On the occasions when she did rise above the BBC SSO, it sounded forced. Most crucially, she didn't convey the weight of emotion that the songs need.

Saturday 1 October 2011

The Auld Alliance - Stéphane Denève starts his final season as music director of the RSNO

The programme Stéphane Denève had chosen to open his final season in charge of the RSNO illustrated the year's major theme more effectively than any press launch, that being the musical links between France and Scotland. So it was that they began with Debussy's Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire. Well, almost. Actually, things kicked off with Meggernie Castle, said popular theme. It was not, however, played by the RSNO, but rather by three members of the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland: Craig Muirhead, Scott Wood and Iain Crawford. Standing at the top of a colourfully lit organ gallery, they certainly looked very fine. They sounded very fine too, if you like the bagpipes. I fear, though, even when played this well the tone of the instrument is not one I care for. Still, it was interesting to hear the original tune before we then heard it from the fine flute of Katherine Bryan. But in the hands of Denève and the orchestra, the winds especially, I much preferred it.

Debussy was followed by Bruch, but still with a distinctly Scottish flavour in the form of his Scottish Fantasy. The soloist was that favourite of local audiences Nicola Benedetti. Despite her regular appearances here, I think this is actually the first time I've heard her live, as other things keep arising that get in the way of the concerts. She played beautifully and was equally at home in both the slower passages and the work's more exciting moments. Beneath her Denève and the orchestra provided sensitive accompaniment. Yet, as a soloist, I didn't find she had quite the individuality or flair that marks out my favourite performers.

Here's Runnicles, with MacMillan's St John Passion

In James MacMillan's St John Passion, Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra had opted for a bold statement to open their 2011/12 season, their third with him as chief conductor. The ninety minute choral work had the programme to itself and it was refreshing that so much new music didn't seem to have put the punters off, with Glasgow's City Halls more or less sold out.

I was likely with the majority in never having heard it before, because while MacMillan is Scottish this marked the first performance here of a piece premiered some three years ago. In part my ignorance is down to a failure to do my homework: a little while ago I did pick up Colin Davis and the LSO's recording, but for various reasons I have not got round to listening to it yet. That said, while familiarity and knowledge can in many ways enhance the listening experience, it must also be said that there is nothing quite like hearing something for the first time in a live concert.

Monday 26 September 2011

Salonen and the Philharmonia PLAY Kullervo

I was actually in London primarily for family reasons this weekend, but even if Sunday's Philharmonia season opener hadn't been a neat fit, I would have made the journey south to hear it. The reason was simple: Sibelius's Kullervo. This early choral symphony is not performed all that often - I last heard it during the BBC SSO's cycle of the symphonies in 2006; most recorded surveys of the symphonies omit it. Yet its neglect is surely unjust. Driving melodies, searing drama and wonderful choral and orchestral climaxes, it has them all in spades. What an opening concert it would make for, say, the Edinburgh International Festival.

But I digress. Esa-Pekka Salonen directed an extremely persuasive reading, with an excellent sense of the work's structure, keeping his powder dry early on, thus ensuring that the later climaxes had full impact. As he managed with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in Edinburgh recently, he delivered a performance that was not only fearsomely dramatic but extremely graphic and full of violence. After that performance someone I spoke to remarked that he brought out new details. I do not know that score well enough to comment, but he certainly highlighted things in the Sibelius that haven't struck me before, such as the orchestral accompaniment when Kullervo's sister tells of her time picking fruit or the delicate open to the finale.

He was aided by stunning playing from the Philharmonia, both at the quieter moments and in those thrilling climaxes, and in his well judged transitions between the two. This was apparent at many points, such as a jump in the first movement from beautifully soft pizzicato basses to blazing brass. While this was perhaps a little too blazing for one or two members of the chorus who found themselves just above the tuba (and could be seen with a finger in their ear at one or two points) it was glorious in the stalls.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Where's Klemperer, EMI and BIS? - The Curious Case of Passionato's Vanishing Catalogue

[Edit 2012-06-20 00.03: This post is now a little out of date and Passionato no longer exists at all as a download store. See my March 2012 roundup of download stores for more information.]

[Edit 2011-09-21 19.45: Please see the comment / explanation posted by Passionato President James Glicker at the end of this post.]

I like to download music. Somewhat atypically, however, I do so legally and that is hard. In fairness, with the likes of Apple's iTunes it's fairly easy if you don't mind about quality, but if you want something that sounds at least as good as a CD then good luck to you. This is a subject I've moaned about before, though there are some, such as Linn Records, who do it well. The Classical Shop is more mixed and in some ways has actually got worse since I last wrote about them - their download manager (mandatory) locks up your browser completely and the tagging on the last thing I bought (Louis Lortie's Beethoven sonatas) was a total mess, with discs wrongly numbered and tracks incorrectly titled.

Passionato, which launched about three years ago, should have been a winner; but it wasn't. For one thing, huge swathes of their catalogue was available only in MP3. Some Universal stuff has recently started to appear in lossless FLAC but this is still patchy and not a unique selling point since DG and Decca's own web stores have virtually their entire catalogue in FLAC (save, bafflingly, a few recent issues). However, one of its biggest selling points is that it is the only place I'm aware of where you can get EMI Classics as CD quality downloads.

Or, rather, was the only place you could get them. A little over a week ago I received a tweet from @meltsheep expressing confusion that he could find no Klemperer downloads there. This immediately struck me as odd since sitting in Songbird just now I have two Klemperer recordings I purchased from Passionato earlier this year (a Brahms Requiem and a Tchiakovksy 6th). But a quick search of their site proved him right.

Sunday 11 September 2011

Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen, or, Yes, We Have Him

Whenever I go to a live performance there's one thing I hope for above all the others. That at some point it will cast that remarkable spell that holds me, that suddenly disappears the audience, the building so there's just me and the situation of these characters, now. This is a slight exaggeration but the essence of it is the magic of truly great live performance suddenly to hold you bound so that you have to watch. After the first act of this revival I really did not expect it to happen, but Act Two is an absolute stunner.

The problem with the first act is not with the play itself but with the staging. This is an ensemble piece about the lives of the staff of a busy restaurant and in the first act we are introduced to the whole set of them. Given that there are thirty of them we have only little glimpses. They are intentionally subsumed in the work structure of the kitchen of the title. This has two consequences. First, one hasn't time to get to know any of them sufficiently to be thoroughly engaged, and secondly, the success depends on the brief vignettes being effectively counterpointed by the process of the dinner rush. Unfortunately, director Bijan Sheibani and movement director Aline David's vision of this rush is flawed, albeit to some degree for understandable reasons. The most obvious issue is that there is no food anywhere in this kitchen – it is all mime and imagination. I can see that it would be very expensive and with raw meats and fish very tricky to actually have real food, but the lack of it is a problem. It means the kitchen stays too clean and for me the bustle of food preparation just lacks conviction. This is compounded by the choreography which I found too stylised – the rush should build to absolute frenzy by the end of the act and it just isn't extreme enough – the movement is ultimately too beautiful, too cleanly done. Don't get me wrong, the movement is excellent in itself and this large ensemble cast execute it to perfection but it doesn't fit the mood and needs of the play.

Poliakoff's My City at the Almeida, or Getting a Bit Too Lost in London

Note: This is a review of the first preview performance on Thursday 9th September 2011.

This was my first encounter with Stephen Poliakoff as playwright (I'm not even sure I ever seen any of his television dramas). It is also Poliakoff's first stage play for 14 years. I'm afraid on the strength of this evening it hasn't altogether been worth waiting for.

The play concerns a meeting between two ex-pupils (Richard (Tom Riley) and Julie (Sian Brooke)) and three of their former teachers (Lambert (Tracey Ullman), Minken (David Troughton) and Summers (Sorcha Cusack)). The narrative of a long night spent in each other's company is then interspersed with assemblies from days past conducted by the three teachers.

The central dramatic punch of the play ought to come from the present day encounter of this ensemble but somehow Poliakoff leaves key elements unexplained. It is never clear, for instance, why these three teachers have remained so closely associated. The implication seems to be that they are all in some way troubled, scarred but the explanations given for this struck me as rather hollow. Summers rants about how children aren't allowed to be children anymore; Minken complains about London now being a dirty violent city. These didn't really seem to me to get at the heart of who these characters were and meanwhile, particularly in Minken's case, much more key issues never get explored – why is he packing up his flat? How does his wife (conveniently banished by the playwright to Australia) factor into the rest of his life? It's rather as if messages have got in the way of characterisation. The context for Ullman's character works slightly better but she's such a dominating figure that I found the twist at the end, and her opening herself up to the frankly obnoxious Richard, difficult to believe. The other big problem with the teachers side of the story is the veering between a credible set of retired people and the distinctly creepy elements of some of their activities (particularly in the case of Minken's collection from years of teaching). The play can't seem to decide whether it's reality or fantasy, both elements are present and they tend to undermine rather than reinforce each other.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

EIF 2011 - The Fireworks Concert

On Sunday evening the Edinburgh festival reached its spectacular conclusion with the fireworks concert - over three quarters of an hour, some one hundred thousand fireworks were launched from the spectacular setting of Edinburgh's castle, timed to live musical accompaniment from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. It is quite something to witness.

Joining the queue in mid-afternoon secured us a prime viewing spot in Princes Street Gardens (alas not affording a view of the SCO, but this consideration was trumped by a perfect and unobstructed line of sight to the castle). We then settled in for a nice picnic while the sky steadily darkened until things were ready for ignition at 9pm - this is the moment in the year when I realise the long summer nights have gone.

Friday 2 September 2011

EIF 2011 - Die Frau ohne Schatten, a Brave and Powerful Company Performance of a Neglected Masterpiece

When the 2011 EIF programme was released in April these performances of Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten were for me the most exciting item on the bill. I am a big fan of Strauss's operas, and it is frustrating that performances in the UK are typically confined to Der Rosenkavalier and Salome with recent forays into Elektra and occasional sightings of Ariadne auf Naxos and Capriccio. Die Frau has been at the top of the list of his operas I have longed to see fully staged, and the Mariinsky Opera under Valery Gergiev duly turned in a powerful, compelling performance.

Let us take first the staging, so often the area where opera goes catastrophically wrong. Jonathan Kent (director) and Paul Brown (designer) successfully surmount the opera's many challenges – not least the need for boats, lakes, earthquakes and the particularly complex sequence of scene changes within both Acts 2 and 3. Their biggest weapon is video projections designed by Sven Ortel and Nina Dunn. Unlike so many productions which use such a device these are successfully intergrated into the rest of the staging – much of the time they are simply used to cover scenic transitions with clever deployment of motifs from the opera – clouds to signify the transfers between worlds, birds to recall the falcon. However, they really come into their own in bringing in the key natural elements of which the conjuring of water for the boat bearing the Empress and the Nurse to the temple in Act 3 is especially magically done. Key to the success of the staging, however, is that these projections are linked to convincing physical environments, from the grand double doors marking the Emperor's palace at the very beginning, through the detailed grubby urban environment of Barak's house (including washing machines and a clapped out delivery van) to the hunting environment of the Emperor.

Thursday 1 September 2011

EIF 2011 - Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra

While Scotland seems to have avoided the steady stream of complete Mahler cycles that a sizeable proportion of English orchestras have been embarking on in recent years, we do seem to have had our share of Symphonie Fantastiques. Indeed, by October, all three of Scotland's main orchestras will have taken their turn under the baton of their present chief conductor (see here for the RSNO and BBCSSO reviews, SCO still to come). Still, I love a good Symphonie Fantastique and so was keen to hear it under Charles Dutoit's baton. He has recorded it at least twice (with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal and the Philharmonia) and both are pretty good, if not my absolute favourites.

His Philadelphia performance certainly had its moments, principally the final two movements: The March to the Scaffold and The Dance of the Witches Sabbath. These were electrifying and filled with about as much drama as one could ask for. The orchestra played superbly for him too, indeed throughout the symphony their playing was their finest of the evening. The string sound was especially good, but there were also a lot of nice wind solos and some solid brass and percussion action - all key in this work. He placed his offstage bells for good effect (as indeed the offstage oboe in the third movement). However, his interpretation was less secure elsewhere. In the slowly paced introduction he didn't have quite the momentum needed. Then in the second movement's ball things were too hard driven. While this was fine towards the end as, to quote Berlioz's own programme note "the beloved image keeps haunting him and throws his spirit into confusion," it was less so at the beginning where the music was not given enough room to breath and dance. In the end it was thrilling but overall not as satisfying as some; by the drug fuelled visions of the finale it didn't feel we'd taken a long enough journey to get there. On a side note, observing the generous orchestration, including two harps, three trombones, two tubas, two sets of timpani, four bassoons, and so on, one can't help but wonder how good a fit this is for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to open their season.

For my money, the Symphonie Fantastique is not a work you should follow with an encore, though they played Sibelius's Valse Triste well enough. They then followed it with a pretty exciting reading of Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila overture. Again well played, but the trouble for me was that it didn't come close to the excitement of the Dance of the Witches Sabbath, which would have made a far better conclusion.

Monday 29 August 2011

EIF 2011 - Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, or A Demonstration of the Difference between Good and Great

This evening's performance was on my to hear list for one major reason, the presence on the programme of Maria João Pires, who I have been waiting for a chance to hear live again for ages. Fortunately she did not disappoint, but the performance of the Tonhalle Orchestra overall was for me an interesting demonstration of the line between good and really great orchestral playing.

Their best work as a band came in the evening's opener, a new piece by Anders Hillborg entitled Cold Heat. According to the programme note Zinman had asked for “NO slow music whatsoever” and Hillborg's statement that he had met him halfway seems equally fair. My mother had also picked up a description somewhere of the piece beneath the more frenetic sections being rather chorale like and I found this a helpful listening aid. Unusually for a new orchestral piece, or unusually for me at any rate, I felt I had a real sense of the shape of the piece. At the heart is a kind of minimalist chorale with a real intensity to it. It is overlaid in the middle section by a wilder rhythmic portion led by the percussion section who were obviously having great fun on their various drums, but the focus of the piece actually remains the chorale-like movement in the strings. I would definitely hear more of Hillborg, though I fear in conservative Edinburgh I would be in a minority. The applause was noticeably thin, and many self-evidently sat on their hands, most unjustifiably given that orchestrally this piece saw the best playing of the evening.

We continued with Mozart's Piano Concerto No.27. I had treasured memories of Maria João Pires's playing, though I think it has been at least ten years since I last heard her. It was beautiful. She is a wonderfully unassuming soloist, with a light touch, solemn or playful as the music calls for it, and perhaps most of all subtle, someone who really allows the music to speak for itself. Unfortunately, the band and Zinman were on a bit of a different planet. Other members of my party felt that the big problem was that they were simply playing too loudly and swamping her. I had a different reaction. It struck me that Zinman's view of Mozart didn't really fit with Pires's. He had a kind of heavy, inflexibility where she was light and thoughtful. The result was that for all the beauty and magic of Pires's playing the performance was not completely satisfying.

Sunday 28 August 2011

EIF 2011 - There's Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony with Mahler 2

If there were two characteristics that marked out Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's performance of Mahler's 2nd symphony, they were drama and theatre. Drama in the way he built tension and then released it in epic climaxes, in how he shaped the score and in how the players and singers responded to his every gesture. But there was also theatre, from the placement of the offstage brass and percussion, both outside the dress circle and back stage, enveloping us in sound, to those same extra horn players dashing on stage at the close to literally turn things up to eleven.

For me the first movement was a particular highlight, more compelling in Runnicles' hands than I sometimes find it, such phenomenal punch to those climaxes. At the end, he chose not to observe the five minute pause Mahler requests in the score, wisely in my view, since I find that saps the drama. Though when I saw Jansons do so, during which time he left the stage, it had me fearing for his health. The slow movement was notable for its extreme dynamics, marked by especially fine string playing in the quieter passages, and giving it an appropriately other-worldly feel. The third movement, which shares its theme with Mahler's setting of St Anthony's sermon to the fish, had a nice wit to the opening but also plenty of weight elsewhere.

Saturday 27 August 2011

EIF 2011 - Jurowski and the OAE PLAY Liszt's Faust Symphony

This festival has had a fairly high quotient of rarely performed large works. With Liszt's Faust symphony, for the first time I found myself feeling that here was something that was unjustly neglected. This reaction had been well trailed, as a few weeks earlier Jurowski brought it to the Proms with the London Philharmonic. In the Usher Hall, together with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, he found the same drama and energy, not only whipping the orchestra up into fantastic climaxes and bringing out all the excitement of the finale's marvellous theme, but also ensuring sufficient tension and momentum during the slower moments. Then there was the beauty they found in the slow movement, depicting Gretchen. In the wrong hands this piece could perhaps be a long seventy-five minutes, but those hands do not belong to Valdimir Jurowski or the members of the OAE!

It is an ambitious and challenging piece to attempt with a period band, as some of the players note in this video on their website, yet they rose superbly to the occasion with playing that was generally of the highest order. True, there was the odd fluffed horn note here and the occasional slip in oboist Anthony Robson's generally excellent, not to mention epic and exposed solo passages in the second movement, yet amid the edge of seat intensity they brought, that didn't really matter. There was a fine turn from bassoonist Jane Gower, to highlight one of many, not to mention the orchestra's intoxicating low string sound, aided by what seemed like a comparatively big force of ten cellos and eight basses. Their performance also underscored a debate I had recently about period and modern instruments, albeit in the context of harpsichord versus piano for Bach, were I argued that I don't mind which so long as the artist plays it compellingly. To my mind, these two fine performances (last night and at the Proms) very much illustrate the same point.

Friday 26 August 2011

EIF 2011 - Myung-Whun Chung and the Seoul Philharmonic

Not having come across the Seoul Philharmonic before, either on disc or in the concert hall, I did not know what to expect for their Festival debut. However, after hearing them I wonder that they are not better known here, certainly their playing was of a suitably high standard. That said, their programme didn't entirely convince. It opened with Messiaen's Les offrandes oubliees, a very early work and one that feels very early. It does have many hallmarks of the composer's output, such as the overtly religious setting (describing Christ's sacrifice on the cross) and, particularly in the finale, characteristic chords that show an embryonic glimpse of the composer he was to become. The outer movements, and especially the slow finale, were the most effective.

This was followed by Unsuk Chin's Šu, a concerto for sheng and orchestra (the sheng being a traditional seventeen pipe Chinese mouth organ). It is an interesting instrument and it is always good to hear a new and different sound. That said, it is also a comparatively quiet instrument and I'm not convinced that a concerto with full orchestra is quite the right setting for it, though there were some nice touches to the accompaniment, especially in terms of the percussion. As a piece I didn't feel it totally hung together. However, Wu Wei seemed a very talented player, something underscored by his encore which I enjoyed rather more, in part due to its somewhat jazzy feel.

EIF 2011 - Orlando Paladino, or Rene Jacobs wows a thin audience but not me

It is not unusual on this blog for us to be at variance with other critics, and indeed other members of the audience. Last night at the Usher Hall was for me one of those nights. While the playing was generally good (although there were problems which I'll return to) I wasn't blown away by it or the singing, or convinced that Haydn as an opera composer has been undeservedly neglected. However there were many fellow members of the audience who clearly thought otherwise (I had one of those nights when I was often baffled by the applause afforded to singers after their arias).

Let us take the positives first. The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra played with real verve. If not quite in the same league as Les Talons Lyriques (for my money the most exciting such band currently around and why Mills doesn't get them for a gig I do not know), under Rene Jacobs's direction they kept things moving along nicely.

In keeping with other recent concert operas there was some attempt at movement on the part of the singers – they entered and exited from a variety of doors around the stage, and attempted with the odd costume change and gesture to give a bit of life to the drama. It actually should be noted that this was an opera which you could have done anything with as the libretto is more than usually incoherent for a piece from this period.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

EIF 2011 - Salonen and the Philharmonia PLAY Stravinsky

The visit to the festival of Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia provided an interesting contrast with last week's appearances by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. The former closed their stay with The Rite of Spring, the latter with the original version of The Firebird. While Nagano and the Montréal hit the money notes and got some exciting climaxes, they often lost focus in between and both the ensemble and solo playing left a little to be desired. By contrast, the Philharmonia provided something of a masterclass, giving us a vivid half hour of sheer drama, passion and violence. When played like this, you can easily imagine how a riot greeted the first performance; in hands such as Salonen's and the Philharmonia's this music still feels new, fresh, alive and dangerous.

Salonen also ensured the momentum never flagged between the climaxes and was helped on his way by superb playing from all sections - be it the dramatic punctuation of the timpani and drum, or the ferocious bowing of the strings. In fairness, this is slightly comparing apples and oranges since The Rite is a different and arguably tighter composition than The Firebird, but even allowing for such caveats, this was a performance on another level. The climaxes punched harder. Indeed, such was the orchestra's precision that it did at times feel like the musical equivalent of being punched in the face by upwards of a hundred people simultaneously.

The programme had opened with Scriabin's The Poem of Ecstasy. It is a somewhat mad piece, generously orchestrated (outside Janáček's Sinfonietta, I'm not sure when I last saw so many trumpets on stage) and complete with another outing for the Usher Hall organ. Oscillating between the sort of ecstasy that one finds in Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune and the more frantic and energetic kind, it made for a generally thrilling curtain raiser. That said, it did repeat itself a little and would perhaps have been more effective if it were more tightly edited.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

EIF 2011 - Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or Put that Kitchen Sink down Stage Right I'll Think What to do with it Later

I am thinking of having an Edinburgh International Festival Non-Music Endurance Medal struck. It would be awarded each year to those people intrepid (or in my case mad enough) to attend more than 50% of the EIF's non-music programming (I have so far this year endured 100% of the Drama programme and 33% of the Dance programme). This idea came to my mind as I sat stuck mid-row looking at my watch and resisting the urge to shout at the performers to GET ON WITH IT.

On paper, as I said back when the programme was announced, there was promise in this show. Murakami writes wonderful novels in beguiling prose. Unfortunately, this adaptation manages to throw that away. I can put it most simply by saying where Murakami is a pleasure to read this attempt at a play is an endurance test and not in a good way. It is some years since I read the book, but I had not remembered the plot as being so disjointed and confused and this was confirmed by two friends I happened to meet at the end who had only recently read the novel. Fragments of plot surface periodically but they are not linked together coherently, the consequence once again is to fail to build one's interest in and emotional concern for the characters.

In place of plot and character, as so often in the modern theatre, Earnhart goes for effect on top of effect. This staging has an overly mobile set, ample film projections and other lighting effects, and a great deal of puppetry which can't hold a candle in emotional terms to the National Theatre's productions of His Dark Materials or War Horse. Some of this is very beautiful but the effects are passing and don't build because, as so often the overall consequence is to divorce one from the characters and consequently from having much interest in their ultimate fate. For all these reasons it struck me that he was a director if ever there was one for John Berry at English National Opera to embrace with open arms.

Monday 22 August 2011

EIF 2011 - Ravel, Hosokawa and Duruflé blossom with Ticciati, the SCO and NYCoS

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra was bulked up some way beyond its core size for Duruflé's Requiem, with three trombones, four bases and over sixty players on the stage. And yet their playing was still of the highest calibre and precision and they retained a good degree of the intimacy that is one of their great selling points, such as during the Pie Jesu when mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch was accompanied by a beautiful cello melody. Koch herself was a last minute stand-in for an indisposed Magdalena Kožená, not that you'd have known from her performance (though this perhaps explained why she exited the stage at the next movement break and didn't return for deserved applause). Opposite her Simon Keenlyside was similarly fine.

However, excellent though the orchestra and soloists were, the stars of the piece were probably the National Youth Choir of Scotland who delivered a superb performance (and are a credit to their chorus master Christopher Bell). There was power when needed and subtlety at other times, not to mention great clarity. The Usher Hall organ also got a decent outing, providing a nice extra colour, at times creating a feeling almost like that achieved with off-stage brass. Conductor Robin Ticciati held everything together well, achieving both suitably weighty climaxes and delicate beauty.

The concert had opened with Le tombeau de Couperin, which is one of my favourite pieces by Ravel. Though I know it first and best from the piano version, the orchestral one is equally fine and engaging, not least due to Ravel's skill as a orchestrator and his wonderful sense of orchestral colour. The SCO played it extremely well, with the Menuet especially beautifully done. The opening movements were a little briskly paced for my taste, and I felt the music wanted a little more room to breath, or even to blossom. That said, listening to a couple of recordings on my return home, Ticciati's reading doesn't seem overly fast, so I may be at odds with what the composer wanted. Speed suited the finale much better, which was very well carried off.

EIF 2011 - 1001 Nights, or, An Epic which doesn't quite achieve lift off

Tim Supple's new adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights is the dominating feature of the Festival's drama programme this year. Clocking in at around 6 hours in two parts it aspires to epic status. While there are some lovely things in it, it doesn't justify this length, and is not a wholly satisfying experience. This is a consequence of a number of issues.

First of all, the decision was taken at some stage to present this production in three languages: English, French and Arabic. As someone who despite French and German lessons long ago is only fluent in English I highly respect anyone with a command of more than one language. But the truth is that many of the performers are just not comfortable across these languages. Lack of confidence was, of course, for me as a native English speaker most obvious in that language, but hesitancies are apparent in the other tongues. This has an overall tendency to effect momentum and meaning. I'm not criticising the choice to perform in multiple languages per se, but I think it would have helped pacing and impact to have chosen a group of performers who were most comfortable in each language and had them stick to that language – the switching within speeches, and sometimes between lines, while it does sometimes strike home (the guy with the lost donkey in part two is a case in point) overall I thought lessened cohesion and punch.

Secondly, there is a lack of depth to the direction to my mind. Those of you who are familiar with the source material will know that the construction is of stories within stories within stories. The result is that one often encounters characters in one relation with each other, layers are then stripped away, and relations are revealed to be actually quite different. The surprise of those revelations is crucial to the drama from the audience's point of view – but characterisations need to be constructed on the basis of what that character can know about their situation at a given point, not what has been revealed to the audience. On too many occasions it felt as if the construction of characters was too episodic – revelations seemed as much a surprise to them as to the audience. There is an art to the construction of tensions in silences, gestures and glances that this production needed much more of.

Saturday 20 August 2011

EIF 2011 - Princess Bari, or would someone be good enough to point out the Princess please

After a week largely composed of performances from the East I'm beginning to become familiar with certain styles (mostly a great deal of colour), musical idioms (rather minimalist), gestures (hand wringing, clothes wringing) and attitude to narrative (dispense with it). Frankly, the novelty is wearing off.

The second offering in the Festival's Dance programme, from Korea's Eun-Me Ahn Company has all of this. Once again (as at The Peony Pavilion) there is a lengthy synopsis, in this case of the myth of Princess Bari printed in the programme. You may as well not bother buying and reading it. Occasionally a fragment surfaces but this is a mostly plotless piece of modern dance.

This would work if the dance were sufficiently interesting. For me, it was not. There is somewhat more choreography than in The Peony Pavilion but it all overstays its welcome. There is nowhere near enough here to sustain a piece lasting 90 minutes. I congratulate the dancers on the way they throw themselves around and some of the more acrobatic leaps and balances are impressive, but as with so much of this stuff in the productions offered this festival it struck me again as style over substance. The repetition became boring, the various segments did not seem to me to form a coherent whole, and as with Pavilion I was left thoroughly emotionally cold.

Friday 19 August 2011

EIF 2011 - Thaïs: if you ever get the chance to hear the extraordinary Erin Wall seize it

Comparison between the festival's opening concert, Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri, and this week's concert performance of Massernet's Thaïs is interesting both for the similarities and the differences. Both are rarely performed, and there is the same reason in both cases: neither work is much to write home about.

Thaïs tells a not especially interesting story of a priest who sets out to bring an infamous courtesan back to God and, with remarkable and implausible ease, does. There are a lot of dull moments in between, the whole of the first scene for example, which adds little to the plot and is especially drab musically. So much so that I found myself thinking that if it carried on like this I might not come back after the interval.

Fortunately in scene two the titular Thaïs shows up, along with the primary reason for staging the piece: her showy soprano part. It has to be said that if you didn't have a great singer in the role the opera would be a very long three hours. Fortunately the festival had engaged Erin Wall and she is in possession of an exceptional instrument, displaying both laser-like precision and power, not to mention sheer beauty be it at high or soft volumes. Of course, she is known to festival audiences after having done a similarly fine turn in last year's Mahler 8. She was once again a treat to listen to. Yet this would have been the case with a number of other works which might not have had the same flaws.

Snape Proms - Louis Lortie's Spellbinding Liszt

It can be difficult in August, with both the Edinburgh International Festival and the BBC Proms in full swing, to notice that other festivals are available. Fortunately my parents live in Suffolk and drew my attention to the Snape Proms. In this series one concert stood out: Louis Lortie performing Liszt's complete Annees de Pelerinage. I have always found Liszt intriguing when I've heard his work, but he isn't very frequently performed in recital. Unfortunately I'd already pretty much committed myself to being in Edinburgh for most of August, but I decided to make a slightly mad trip down to Suffolk for two nights just for this concert. When it came to heading off on Wednesday I wondered if it was really worth doing. It turned out to be one of those extraordinary evenings of live performance where you just sit in total wonder.

Louis Lortie's performance was an utter tour de force. To perform this work complete (which I suspect even Liszt cannot have done since he had retired from live performance by the time he wrote the pieces in the Third Year) requires enormous stamina. This is about two hours and forty minutes of music that demands rock solid technique, poetic feeling for Liszt's various moods, real dynamic range (one hears such pianissimos against such triple fortes very very seldom brought off in performance) and a sense of shaping. There is nowhere for the performer to hide, and the end is just as demanding as the beginning. Lortie brought it off perfectly, whether quietly introspective or with fingers flying at unbelievable speed across the keyboard.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

EIF 2011 - Asian Shakespeare (2), or The Tempest as Korean possibly comedy

Unlike the marvellous Taipei King Lear for which the reviews have been mixed, those for this Korean production of The Tempest have been pretty uniformly positive. I was not as beguiled as some, and I was especially baffled (and I suspect many of the rest of the audience would have been too given the thinness of laughter) at the review quotation posted outside which proclaimed this show to be a laugh a minute.

To be fair there is beauty, tenderness, and humour in this production. As with much of the other eastern fare at this year's Festival there is an attention to the visual look of a piece of a much higher order than in many western productions. The manner of Prospero's use of magic with fans and brush-like trees, the white cloths waving wildly from every hand to mark the storm, the sudden appearance of red fans in a fire dance, the torments of Ferdinand are all magically realised. Similarly the invention of some of the acting – the cast masquerade as a whole variety of animals summoned to assist Ariel and the drumming which marks the wedding celebration show what this device can achieve when used intelligently. The young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand are genuine and moving. When she talks about long lasting love as being like two tall buildings (it's actually much more poetic than this but I can't now recall the exact lines) and makes him stand up still just holding hands not looking at each other it was very touching.

And yet there are also stretches where interest flags, and more of them than in King Lear. There seems to be something of an attempt to mock the adult figures, especially Prospero and Alonso. This works quite well with Prospero, but poorly with Alonso who becomes so ridiculous one can't quite see how he has ever held onto his throne. Generally the scenes with Alonso's party drag most and, in particular, the effectiveness of the portrayal of the Ferdinand-Miranda and Prospero-Miranda relationships is not carried over into the power struggles around thrones and dukedoms. I suspect the aim here may have been to point up the emptiness of these adult concerns but it doesn't quite come off.

EIF 2011 - Warning: those in the front row may get wet as Wang Beibei, Kent Nagano and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal play with water

The torrential downpour that I, and doubtless many others, endured en route to the Usher Hall last night was in a way apt. After all, if Kent Nagano's first concert with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal had a theme it was water, and at its centre was the Water Concerto of Tan Dun.

The setup required for the piece was a little atypical. At this point a picture would be worth a thousand words, but sadly from the upper circle my phone's camera was inadequate to the task. Hopefully the festival themselves didn't miss the opportunity for some cracking publicity shots (Edit - and here they are on Flickr). In the meantime, we'll have to make do with words. Several transparant water filled bowls on pedestals were arrayed along the front of the stage. However, it was not at one of these that soloist Wang Beibei began, rather she emerged out of the audience, bowing an instrument unfamiliar too me. It was the first of many unfamiliar things in Tan Dun's engaging soundscape. It was also the first indication that this was in some ways as much performance art as it was music.

Tan Dun showed a rich imagination for what could be done with water, which Wang Beibei then skilfully executed, be it splashing her hands, stirring, dripping water down, placing gongs in the water and moving them so as to attenuated the sound, sticking a tube half into the water and beating down on it, using glasses to strike the water, drumming on upended wooden bowls, and so on. Two other percussionists provided further support and texture from two bowls to either side. To ensure such sounds were audible, amplification was employed, but subtly and effectively. The orchestra got to have some fun too, contributing to this very different sound world; thus the brass players slapped their mouthpieces or the winds used what looked like bird whistles. It was all great fun, even, I hope, for the few people in the front row who got splashed a little (if it's any consolation, I suspect I was still wetter from my walk). However, enjoyable though it was, it did feel slightly gimmicky, and as it drew on it did seem the only reason was to try another effect. There didn't seem to be a huge amount of emotional substance beneath.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

EIF 2011 - The Peony Pavilion, or something is amiss at the ballet when the orchestral sound is more exciting than the dancing

Once again this website finds itself out of step with mainstream critical opinion. Praise has been lavish for the National Ballet of China's production of The Peony Pavilion which opened the International Festival's dance programme on Saturday and which I caught up with last night. For the life of me I really can't see why.

This ballet requires a three page synopsis to explain the plot. I read this carefully before each act but I found it really quite difficult to keep track of the plot based on what was actually going on on stage. As far as I can judge from the synopsis (what went on on stage was not a lot of help) it was all about the love of a young woman for a young man who may, or may not be real – or at least starts off as a dream or a fantasy and becomes real by the end. One of the problems with this was that there didn't seem to be much in the way of passion between the two lovers, even though the programme makes much of the exploration of love as being central to the traditions of Chinese ballet.

Monday 15 August 2011

EIF 2011 at the Queen's Hall, Nuts, Bolts, Two Pianos and Melvyn Tan

The Queen's Hall was encouragingly better filled than might have been expected for this recital, where Singapore-born pianist Melvyn Tan coupled John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano with sonatas by Scarlatti. One might not expect two composers from such different time periods to work well together. Tan explained it on the basis of their shared use of binary form, but actually one of the odd effects of the recital was to make much of Scarlatti's music sound remarkably modern.

John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes once again fitted in with Festival 2011's eastern theme. Indeed, I've had a little mini-cycle of eastern musical experiences over the last three days beginning with the Jonathan Harvey tryptich on Saturday night, followed by Lee Yi-chin's score for last night's King Lear and now this. I feel like I'm beginning to get more inside this quite different sound world now. By the alterations, Cage enables the piano to create gamelan and percussive effects, alongside more traditional piano sounds. Tan himself described it as mesmerising and this seems to me a good term. As at Lear and in the Harvey pieces, it can feel a little repetitious, but as with those other performances I think you have to surrender to the style in which there is much which is beautiful and beguiling.

EIF 2011 - Asian Shakespeare (1), Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus?

The idea of a one-man adaptation of King Lear possibly struck lots of potential audience members as ridiculous. That at least is one likely explanation for the sparsely populated Lyceum, and a kinder one than blaming the innate conservatism of the International Festival audience. I must confess that before I went along this evening I had my doubts. No longer. This is a very powerful theatrical experience and I urge you to challenge your preconceptions and pick up a ticket.

Before going you should discard any idea that this is going to be in any way a traditional performance of Shakespeare's play. It is useful to refresh your memory of the plot if it is hazy, but you can do this very straightforwardly by purchase of a program. Instead what Wu Hsing-kuo delivers is an exploration, based on the techniques of Chinese opera, of themes and characters from Shakespeare's play. Again, at this point, I can hear seasoned International Festival Drama goers groan, oh not another deconstuction of a classic text. But this one works.

Hsing-kuo's Lear is divided into three sections. First we see King Lear running mad on the heath. Second, we have an episodic selection of scenes from the rest of the play (a brief feature of the Fool, the division of the kingdom, and Gloucester's attempted suicide from Dover cliff being the main ones). Thirdly, and most briefly, a kind of ritual summation of the character of Lear as Hsing-kuo interprets him.

Sunday 14 August 2011

EIF 2011 - Volkov and the BBC SSO present a Jonathan Harvey triptych to a deserted Usher Hall

Dress circle: closed. Upper circle: closed. Organ gallery: closed. Even in the stalls of the Usher Hall where the audience probably outnumbered the members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on the platform, it still felt a little like the tumbleweed was all but blowing down the aisles. Even by the standards of programmes of new music in Edinburgh, this was a poor house. More's the pity, since Ilan Volkov and the orchestra gave us rather a treat.

Much has been written, not least here, of the fine results one Donald Runnicles has been achieving with the BBC SSO lately, but it should not be forgotten that this was made possible by the fine work done by Volkov over the six years of his tenure. When it comes to new music, he is an excellent steward, the more so here with a series of works from Jonathan Harvey commissioned by him and the SSO.

The three compositions, with their Buddhist inspirations, all also neatly tie into the festival's eastern themes. Body Mandala, the first of the three pieces, though actually the second to be composed, was for me the most successful. It is influenced by purification rituals, featuring both calm and fierceness and, as Harvey puts it in his note:
The body, when moved with chanting, begins to vibrate and warm at different Chakra points and 'sing' internally - 'lit up' with sound,
Certainly it was a vivid experience, from the superb undulating low brass which opened the piece to his varied and colourful percussion writing. So we were treated to everything from the wonderful effects of half a dozen percussionists working Tibetan ro-mo cymbals to splashing their hands in buckets of water (hopefully their scores had been waterproofed). What marks out the writing especially was that none of this felt gimmicky, as such a cornucopia of unusual instruments can in the wrong hands.

Saturday 13 August 2011

EIF 2011 - Norrington and the SCO provide a damp squib of an opening with Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri

Was Robert Schumann's rarely performed Das Paradies und die Peri really the best choice to open the 2011 Edinburgh International Festival? It is difficult not to wonder whether there exists a more explosive choral blockbuster that ties in with the festival's eastern themes. Indeed, a work that even feels like it deserves the words explosive or blockbuster.

I mention this because it was preceded by Jonathan Mills' customary introductory speech, one that showcased the sheer cultural range, and diversity of performers, that he has assembled for the next three weeks. It must be said, though, that it did rather feel like he was going to read out the entire programme to us, and it would have been a more effective speech had he edited it down a bit.

But back to the music. Personally I am not the greatest fan of Schumann's music and I find that even in better known works such as the symphonies, a conductor has to bring something to it in order that it does not fall flat, whether it be Bernstein's heavy romanticism or Oramo's irrepressible energy. Roger Norrington, on the other hand, brought apathy. On the other hand is perhaps an unfortunate turn of phrase since he often conducted with only one hand, making gestures of the kind that someone might use to indicate they couldn't be bothered. And, in fairness, that's exactly how everyone played and sang.

Monday 8 August 2011

Proms 2011 - Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic play Sibelius, Grieg and Nielsen

Note: this refers to the Radio 3 broadcast of the concert.

This is a difficult Prom to review. Our listening and emotional response to music is always affected by external events - if we come into the concert hall furious after a frustrating day at work our reaction is likely to be different than if we'd just had a pleasant and relaxing day off. Listening last night, my thoughts were often drawn elsewhere.

To go back a step or two, this was probably the Prom I was most eagerly awaiting. I have admired Sakari Oramo ever since some years ago I attended a concert he gave with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra which introduced me to Sibelius via the 5th symphony. Subsequent encounters, such as a blistering Bruckner 1, some more fine Sibelius, and a thrilling introduction to Nielsen (all at the Edinburgh International Festival) have only endeared him to me further. His Sibelius recordings are among my favourites and his recent work with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (notably a survey of Schumann's symphonies) has been similarly impressive. Thus the news that he was to conduct them in a programme of Sibelius and Nielsen, not to mention the Grieg piano concerto, another favourite, was an enticing prospect to say the least.

The opening of Sibelius's 6th symphony is, for me, one of the most beautiful passages in all of music. Indeed, the whole work is replete with moments of aching beauty, especially in the outer movements. Oramo and the orchestra delivered them sublimely. Yet time and again I was drawn uneasily back to the very un-beautiful things that were going on outside in other parts of London, and to the people I know in the vicinity thereof, an unintended irony lurking within the music. Beautiful, or exciting as in the third movement, though it was, I found the music troubled me in a way it never has before. The result was a rather strange experience.

Friday 5 August 2011

Singin' in the Rain, Or No Expenses Spared but you can't buy Heart

It is fairly obvious why the Chichester Festival should hit on the idea of staging Singin' in the Rain. Everybody knows the film. It promises wondrous watery effects. It is in short bankable, and judging by the near sell out house it is indeed proving to be so. Probably a good percentage of the audience thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and I am simply proving once again what a cummudgeonly type of theatregoer I am. But I just can't help it, for all the sharp choreography and no expense spared production which have been thrown at this enterprise, there is an emptiness at the heart of it. The afternoon as a whole left me cold, and at times I fear a little bored.

Partly it is a problem of performances. Now obviously, and this is a drawback of the source material, anyone coming to these roles has to fill some pretty big shoes – each of the three leads has to make those of us who have seen the film forget that they are not Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly. On the other hand the same applies across the arts generally – for example Kevin Spacey in Richard III had to make me forget Jonathan Slinger in the RSC Cycle. The Glyndebourne Meistersinger had to make me forget the Royal Opera House production with John Tomlinson and Thomas Allen. In other words just because a particular interpreter has defined a role for a member of the audience it does not follow that no one else can ever play that role. It does however follow that you probably need really top drawer performers to bring it off and you need a different kind of production to the one Jonathan Church offers here.

There's Runnicles at the BBC Proms: Holloway, Strauss and Brahms

Generally speaking, I'm pleased to be living within striking distance of London as the range of culture I get access to is better (with respect to plays, musicals and opera) than it ever was in Edinburgh outside of the Festival. But I do envy my brother in having the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Donald Runnicles playing regularly on his doorstep. I was lucky enough to be in Edinburgh when they first teamed up for unforgettable concert performances of Les Troyens and Lohengrin at the Edinburgh Festival, but these days I only get to enjoy them live on rare occasions. So I sat down with a glass of wine in a comfortable chair with some interest to see whether they would be able to wow me over the airwaves.

The concert began with a world premiere of Robin Holloway's Fifth Concerto for Orchestra. The first test of any new piece, as I've said previously, is whether you would want to hear it, or anything else by said composer, again. Holloway just about passes this test but I wasn't completely bowled over by the piece. The programme note suggested that its movements were inspired by various colours, but I couldn't really translate this meaningfully into the music that I actually heard. I also wasn't quite sure that as a whole piece it completely hung together. Did it have a distinctive voice? It's hard to say on one hearing and not knowing Holloway's output. Generally it sounded quite lush, and the start of the final movement reminded me strongly of Shostakovich. Leaving aside the merits of the piece the orchestra played superbly, including a number of excellent solos. Indeed the quality of sound which the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra currently has is very very good.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

There's Runnicles - In France (well, at the Proms with an evening of French music)

Sadly the first of Donald Runnicles' two Proms performances with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra didn't get off to the best of starts. At least, not for those of us trying to listen online via the Radio 3's HD stream, which was beset by a bubbling sound more appropriate to Professor Snape's potions classroom than the Royal Albert Hall. Even the iPlayer's basic 192 kbps AAC stream was similarly afflicted with only the low bandwidth (and frankly unlistenable) 48 kbps behaving. After much frustration, I finally found that the higher quality iTunes stream was behaving (though this still seemed lower than the normal HD). Regardless, I missed Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune and Dutilleux's Tout un monde lointain... as a result. Yes, of course there is listen again, but unlike for TV, HD radio is available only on the live stream.

By the time they got going with Ravel's Bolero I had things more or less working again. I must confess I am not the greatest fan of the piece which can, in the wrong hands, sound dull and repetitive. One of the keys to avoiding this is bringing out the multitude of colours in Ravel's orchestration, something the composer particularly excelled at, and thereby finding sufficient variety. Here, Runnicles and the BBC SSO succeeded. In addition, they built steadily and purposefully to a decent climax. That said, even with Runnicles at the helm and playing as fine as this, if you told me I'd never hear the piece ever again, I wouldn't shed a tear.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Emperor and Galilean at the National, or Who is to Blame?

This is an evening that doesn't completely work and the task of the reviewer is to try to work out why. I can find three explanations. Is it the play? Is it the adaptation? Is it the production/performances?

This is the UK premiere of a play which in its original form is in two parts and ten acts and was probably not intended to be staged (although other of Ibsen's closet dramas very quickly were, for example Peer Gynt, as the programme note explains). It is a play about ideas – principally the struggle between paganism and Christianity, although also about the effects and exercise of power. These are big issues and it is very easy for plays about ideas to become all talk and no character or feeling. This is not something that the present production surmounts, and it is quite possible that the original version failed to surmount this either.

Saturday 30 July 2011

Rinaldo at Glyndebourne, or, The Joys of Laughter

After reading the reviews of Robert Carson's new production, I had slight misgivings. Handel's opera, originally set during the First Crusade, was to be set in a school room. Having recently endured Christopher Alden's idiotic but apparently similarly located Midsummer Night's Dream, I think there was something in the mere idea of another such school setting that set my teeth on edge. Now it is true that some of the silliness during the overture is, or at least was for me, unnecessary. But if you give way to the overall scheme of the production you will enjoy a rather enchanting evening.

Yes, Carson does start from the premise that Rinaldo is actually a schoolboy dreaming of escape from a dreary exam question on the First Crusaders, and yes we do have to have a caning scene at the very beginning, but once you're into the fantasy it becomes increasingly beautifully realised. Replacing horses with bicycles, culminating in a lovely ET hommage curtain to act one is inspired. A real boat appears peopled with heroine lookalikes to lure Rinaldo away to the witch's isle, and the explosions, multiple screens and higgledy-piggledy mad lab through which the hapless knights attempt to reach said isle is brilliantly done. By the time we reached the St Trinian's like happy madness of the final act I was enchanted and laughing with delight at Carson's cleverly conceived final confrontation, which also I suggest actually contains a rather poignant admonition about the stupidity of wars of religion. If this isn't magnificence quite on the order of the McVicar Giulio Cesare that is really because this is a lesser Handel piece (and the singers aren't quite of the top notch order fielded in that production) not because Carson's production is any less inventive and joyous. I can also imagine that some critics (and I had a slight suspicion some audience members) may feel that this is all too silly. I did feel that a little in Act One, but as the show goes on it becomes apparent that actually the plotting and text is fairly ludicrous in many places. And yet this is the kind of trial piece that he needed to write as part of the process of developing towards late masterpieces like Ariodante – indeed I was astonished to discover this morning just how early a work Rinaldo is. To do it completely straight would be very very difficult to pull off and I'm not at all convinced any more rewarding. Carson's production acknowledges the follies and makes a beguiling, human evening out of them.

Monday 25 July 2011

Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue rock the Queen's Hall

They had cleared away the seats from the stalls area of the Queen's Hall and, rather than replace them with cabaret style table seating, they instead opted for a standing arena. Given the nature of the performance Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue gave, it was absolutely the right call. This was not really the kind of music that left you wanting to sit still and, though I'm by no means a dancer, I found myself slightly regretting my decision to opt for a seat in the middle of the gallery.

Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue - Sun 24 July 2011 -0084
Trombone Shorty (Troy Andrews)

Their music is probably best described as fusion, though obviously that term could cover almost anything, so I suppose I mean primarily the jazz-rock variety, though there's obviously a lot of other things in there too. In a recent review, LondonJazz note that '“Supafunkrock” is Andrews' chosen name for their style of music.' and this seems as good a description as any. In some ways I was reminded of 70s Miles Davis. Certainly Trombone Shorty's music is a good deal more accessible than that became, and yet, especially in the way it flowed from one song to another, barely pausing for breath, it shared something of the epic feel of those compositions.

Saturday 23 July 2011

Giulini's Berlin Schubert

I'm a big fan of both Carlo Maria Giulini and Schubert's great C major symphony, thus when I stumbled across this new Testament release of a live performance with the Berlin Philharmonic (coupled with the unfinished), picking it up was a no brainer. It was also, unfortunately, a mistake.

The problem with the performances of both works is simple: they are dull; very, very dull. So much so that at times it was genuinely a struggle to listen through to the end. I can think of few CD releases, and certainly no others involving Giulini, of which I would say the same. Had you given me the disc to listen to blind and then told me the identity of the conductor, I would not have believed you.

Friday 22 July 2011

Proms 2011 - Elder and the Halle's superb Sibelius

This is a review of the concert broadcast. For those of a technical persuasion, listening was done via Radio 3's online live HD Stream at 320 kbps AAC.

Ever since the Proms programme was published a few months ago, I have had Prom 9 down as a must hear. There were a variety of reasons. In the first place, the Halle are a very fine band, especially under their current music director Mark Elder. Next, I adore two of the main works on the programme: Sibelius's 7th symphony and Janáček's Sinfonietta. Lastly, the team have recorded Sibelius's 1st and 3rd symphonies, and pretty well too.

In the end, the concert was something of a mixed bag. The first half was given over to Sibelius, but along with the 7th they also played his Scenes Historiques - Suite No.2. This was an odd choice, and felt very much like padding (and padding that wasn't really necessary in a concert that lasted over two hours). It was nice enough, and they played it well, but it pales next to the later masterpiece. Less is very often more, and while putting a twenty minute work alone in a concert half may look a little empty on paper, if the work is right it by no means is, and indeed the piece is enhanced. Such compositions need no support.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Double Feature 1 at the National, or, A Long Evening of Two Halves

Note: This is a review of the first of five preview performances given on 18th July 2011. The opening night is 3rd August 2011.

This is the first of two double bills of one-act plays which, owing to the extension of London Road in the Cottesloe, the National is putting on in the Paintframe. Let us deal first then with the venue. The publicity in the June-Nov brochure describes the space as “a remarkable new performance environment”. I can only assume that whoever came up with this line in the marketing department has never been to the Edinburgh Fringe where frankly such spaces are two a penny. As a fringe type space (with higher production values than many of those) it works perfectly fine, but there is no reason to attend this just to be in the Paintframe – you'd be just as well off going on one of the National's tours.

Monday 18 July 2011

BBC Proms 2011 Opening Weekend – A View from the Gallery (4)

Prom No.4, Harvergal Brian's Growing Pains

It has been almost impossible to avoid coverage of this concert in any write up on this year's Proms. I should imagine that most readers of this blog will know the context of this piece – not performed complete in London since the 1960s, only five complete performances ever, requires around 1,000 performers, a bigger undertaking than Mahler 8, etc. etc.

The first thing to be said therefore is that this is the kind of thing the BBC is there to do and Roger Wright should be commended for programming the piece. It is clear that it was the most enormous logistical feat to do and enormous amounts of effort on the part of many people went into making it a success which as a performance it absolutely was. Both the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Concert Orchestra played superbly (I had always previously ranked the latter in the second teir, on this showing unjustifiably). The massed ranks of eight separate choirs managed what are fiendishly challenging parts with aplomb and deserve to be listed accordingly: Eltham College Boys Choir, CBSO Youth Chorus, Southend Boys and Girls Choirs, Brighton Festival Chorus, Huddersfield Choral Society, London Symphony Chorus, BBC National Chorus of Wales, The Bach Choir, Cor Caerdydd. Two aspects particularly seem worthy of record – the moments where different sections seem to be singing different lines determinedly against each other – not as cacophonous as one might imagine and the near unaccompanied section which as the pre-prom radio feature noted harks back to the world of Tallis.

Sunday 17 July 2011

BBC Proms 2011 Opening Weekend, The View from the Gallery (3)

Prom No.3, or An Interlude with a real King of Instruments

This was my first experience of the restored Royal Albert Hall organ live and it is definitely my kind of organ. The loud bass notes make the building shake, the light stuff sounds out clearly, and there are some fabulously silly stops that make you wonder if you're listening to a classical organ recital or about to applaud the arrival of the Circus Ringmaster. Indeed I almost think that if Terry Pratchett had a model for the organ at Unseen University this might have been it.

To put this beast through its paces, Stephen Farr, making his Proms debut, made a well chosen selection of contrasting pieces. He began with three short works – for a dramatic opening, Alain's Litanies, followed by two more somber pieces, Liszt's Prelude 'Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen and Bach's Chorale Prelude 'Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott', BWV 721. After the excitement of the Alain, the other two floated in Liszt's case eerily, in Bach's case soothingly around the sparsely filled Gallery. The sound of that organ, whatever is being played, fills the space, envelopes the listener. It's wonderful stuff.

BBC Proms 2011 Opening Weekend, The View from the Gallery (2)

Prom No.2, or An Evening at the Opera

One of the reasons I hesitated about this weekend was that although I love Rossini, and I think William Tell is a fascinating neglected piece, I had heard it live just over a year ago in a performance given by the Chelsea Opera Group at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and I did slightly wonder whether I really needed to hear it again so soon in concert. Suffice it to say, I did.

Owing to various circumstances I arrived in the Gallery queue earlier than yesterday (or possibly the queue was shorter for this than for the opening night). Consequently I got a nice central position with a clear view of the stage, which also removed most of the acoustic deficiencies of yesterday. This is the only way I can account for the sound generally being warmer and fuller than it was in any of yesterday's works.

To summarise the plot briefly, it's all about the Swiss rediscovering their love of liberty and rising up against the hated Austrian tyrants, and Arnold's (John Osborn) tortured love for Mathilde (Malin Bystrom), Princess of the House of Hapsburg. It may please you to know that, with the exception of Arnold's father (brutally murdered off-stage between Acts 1 and 2) it all ends happily – or at least it ends with the lovers united and the Swiss preparing to drive the Austrians from the three cantons. There was some discussion at the pre concert talk as to whether this piece is really grand opera. Apparently Richard Osborne regarded it as “comic” opera. I have to say, despite that discussion, I wasn't completely clear what comic in this context really meant. I think of grand opera as having lots of diva type vocal fireworks and ceremonial processions, ballet interludes etc. On these grounds the piece qualifies, but this may of course not be a proper academic distinction.

Saturday 16 July 2011

The Where's Runnicles Album of the Week - Tchaikovsky's Pathetique from Charles Mackerras and the Philharmonia

It is about a year since the great Charles Mackerras died (read my tribute here). And, while concert halls and opera pits have certainly been quieter without him, it is difficult to say the same of the CD players and hi-fis, such has been the steady stream of new releases.

One, more than any other, was keenly awaited by me, his live recording of Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony, The Pathetique, with the Philharmonia. The reason is simple: I was at the concert in question and it was quite something.

BBC Proms 2011 Opening Weekend, The View from the Gallery (1)

Prom No.1, or, Adjusting to the Acoustic

By my calculation I haven't prommed since August 2007 when I was in the Arena for a wonderful performance under the baton of Sir Charles Mackerras of Handel's Jeptha. Prior to that, I had only previously prommed once, earlier I think that season, for a concert by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the only work in which I can remember was a Bartok Piano Concerto. Since then I've attended two other Proms, sitting in the Circle for the ENO performance of War and Peace, and in the Stalls for the premiere of Salonen's Piano Concerto. On both of those occasions I had real problems with the acoustic which have led me not to have going back high on my list.

Yet, the moment this year's guide was published I was tempted to change my mind because of the line-up of the opening weekend. Unlike my brother I rather like Liszt, and have long wanted to hear the Piano Concertos live. I also adore Rossini, and performances of William Tell don't come around very often. Finally, what classical musical devotee could pass up the opportunity to hear a work that apparently has the most complicated xylophone solo in the repertoire (I refer of course to Brian's Gothic Symphony coming up on Sunday). Despite all these attractions, I dithered. By the time I'd decided to take the plunge all the Weekend Passes for the Arena (where I'd intended to Prom) were sold out, so I had to go with the Gallery.

The combination of standing for a concert, plus the Royal Albert Hall acoustic does take a bit of getting used to. At the end of a long week, it is hard work staying upright especially when you're so far away from the performers. Fortunately, in the Gallery one could lie down if one wanted to – many people bring rugs – and there are helpful railings to take some of the weight, but sore legs do at times threaten to distract one from the music. Then there are, for me, acoustical issues. Generally speaking the sound is very good and balance between the different components was not a problem. But while at odd moments, especially in the Janacek, I was enveloped by sound, at other times, I felt just a bit too far away. I will be really interested to see if familiarity over the next two days removes this.

Friday 8 July 2011

Introducing the Where's Runnicles Track of the Day

A year or so ago, I launched an Album of the Week Spotify playlist. With hindsight this was somewhat misnamed because, in the time since, I've done just six of them (and two of those were cheating a bit).

Earlier this week I dug out one of the minority of jazz albums on my shelf that doesn't feature either Miles Davis or Bill Evans: Stan Getz's Captain Marvel. I've been fond of the title track for a long time, having first heard it when the late great Humphrey Lyttelton played it on his Radio 2 show the better part of two decades ago. As a result, it's probably one of the oldest jazz albums (or, indeed, albums full stop) in my collection. I'd chosen to play it again as I was looking for something cheery, and with its boundless, bubbling energy and sense of wonder, Captain Marvel certainly qualifies.