Wednesday 30 March 2011

The 2011/12 Scottish Chamber Orchestra season

Today the Scottish Chamber Orchestra launch their 2011/12 season, and rather exciting it is too, striking a good balance between the bankable and more adventurous works.

With his performances of L'enfance du Christ and Le Mort de Cleopatre, principal conductor Robin Ticciati, now entering his third season with the orchestra, has shown himself to be a dab hand with the music of Hector Berlioz. As such, it's nice to see the composer feature prominently, and with repertoire outside what one might generally associate with a chamber orchestra. So it is that the season opens with the Symphonie Fantastique, which will be the SCO's first performance of the work. Later in the year we get the love scene from Romeo and JulietLes Nuits d’été and Rêverie et Caprice. In a similar vein, it's also nice to see some Ligeti, who featured in Ticciati's first season, such as his Hamburg Concerto and the Chamber Concerto for 13 instruments.

However, by far the biggest single chunk of the season is given over to the ever bankable Beethoven. On the one hand, it does feel a little safe to be programming almost complete cycles of the piano concertos and symphonies, the Mass in C and more. Yet there hasn't been an overabundance of Beethoven in recent seasons, the present one having featured just two symphonies and an overture. And the SCO have fine pedigree with the composer, as anyone who witnessed their 2006 survey of the symphonies under the late great Charles Mackerras can attest.

Saturday 26 March 2011

Uchida, Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra PLAY Beethoven and Strauss

When the first international season was announced for the reopened Festival Hall in 2007, one highlight was an appearance by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. At the time it was said that this was part of a deal for regular visits spanning four years. They have been consistent highlights of the concert seasons. A shame, then, that this weekend marks the last visit; none is scheduled for next year.

Still, you could hardly have wished for a finer note to end on. In the first half, a slimmed down orchestra was joined by soloist Mitsuko Uchida for a glittering performance of Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto. She was, perhaps, at her most persuasive in the softer moments, displaying both a wonderful poetry and delicacy, especially in the first movement cadenza. And yet that is not to suggest that anything was lacking in the meatier sections. Behind her Jansons and the orchestra provided superbly judged accompaniment, no trace here of those performances where soloist and conductor do not seem to share the same conception of the piece. Indeed, Jansons was often craning round to take his cues from her, something especially apparent when judging the orchestra's reentry following that first cadenza. I often regard the third as not being one of my favourites, yet after a reading such as this I find myself wondering why.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

The 2011 Edinburgh International Festival looks to the East

Next week this website has its fourth birthday. I mention that because when we started it, a primary objective was to comment on the 2007 Edinburgh Festival, the first from director Jonathan Mills. Today he launched his fifth and, at first glance, the strong thematic linking of events, coupled with plenty of interesting individual items, suggest that it is well placed to follow last year's strong showing. (Download the brochure here.)

My brother has already discussed the theatre and operatic offerings, so I shall look at the music. Music sometimes seems to be the component of the programme that integrates least strongly with Mills' themes, but this year it looks very well done.

Start, for example, with the opening concert. It features the Scottish Chamber Orchestra back on duty with Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri, an oratorio which sets selections from Thomas Moore's oriental romance Lalla-Rookh. It's not a work I know, and Schumann can be a little turgid in the wrong hands, though under the baton of Roger Norrington that seems unlikely to be the case. Add to that a cast including Susan Gritton and Florian Boesch and it should be a good opening.

EIF 2011 – Opera and Theatre Preview, or Jonathan Mills proves me mistaken

Here at Where's Runnicles I have tended to be a little critical of Jonathan Mills's Edinburgh programmes. For me there have been two major issues, the weakness of the opera programme despite some standout performances, and the flimsy nature of several of Mills’s themes (particularly the Artists without Borders one). On both issues the 2011 programme answers my criticisms. There is some fantastic opera, and the theme really stands out in offerings across the various artforms.

The opera programme is one of the most exciting of recent years. Top of the list for me is the opportunity to hear Strauss’s too rarely performed Die Frau ohne Schatten from Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera. Now there are caveats about this, no information on the cast has been provided, and my impression is that the Mariinsky are not always reliable in non-Russian repertoire. Despite this Gergiev led a pretty good performance of Elektra with the LSO last year, and this opera is so rarely staged that any chance to see it is to be welcomed. I can’t comment on Jonathan Kent’s credentials to direct it as I don’t think I’ve seen any of his work but judging by reviews in the FT and from Opera News an exciting evening is in prospect. Considering the expense and complexity of doing it this is a bold programming choice by Mills and to be commended. One caveat – to stage three performances of a Strauss in a row (and especially this Strauss) is most unusual and I would suspect that the singers must vary from performance to performance – if this is not so it would seem highly advisable to attend the first night.

Monday 21 March 2011

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, or, A Tale of Definitions, Inhibitions and Rolf Harris

This musical is American. Very American. So American that you have to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the start. During the first third of the musical when I was frequently overwhelmed by laughter, and the last third when the stories of several of the characters really engaged me, I also wondered whether it was this very Americanness which has led to the lukewarm reactions of many fellow critics. Yes, the show does slightly lose its way following the departure of the spellers from among the audience. Yes, the music lacks the inventiveness and variety of a Sondheim or a Gershwin. But for all that, this show does have something beyond the simple fact of making me laugh, and for that reason deserves its London premiere.

Once again the Donmar Warehouse performs one of its amazing transformations – this time into a convincing high school gymnasium with whatever the stuff is they use to floor gymnasia, banners, ropes and a band imprisoned in what looks like the scorer's eyrie. Trapped in this somewhat cage-like environment are a sextet of keen high-schoolers competing for the trophy of Best Representation of an American Stereotype...sorry Best Speller at the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee...and four hapless members of the audience (including on this occasion a show-stealing Rolf Harris who brought the house down by spelling a word he was clearly supposed to get wrong). Providing something vaguely resembling adult oversight are Rona Lisa Perretti (Katherine Kingsley), winner of the 3rd Annual Bee, the slightly deranged Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Steve Pemberton), and the recently released on parole school mascot Mitch Mahoney (Ako Mitchell).

Tuesday 15 March 2011

The RSNO launch their 2011/12 Season

As many readers will doubtless be aware, the forthcoming 2011/12 season is Stéphane Denève's last as music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. It is understandable, then, that his final season is something of a celebration of his tenure. More than just understandable, this is rather a good thing, for it is an excuse to do lots of what he does best: showcase French composers, both the familiar, such as Debussy, Berlioz and Ravel, and also the less so, such as Joseph Canteloube and the young Fabien Waksman.

Of these, centre stage goes to Claude Debussy, whose 150th anniversary coincides with Denève's departure. Rather than simply using this as an excuse to give us La mer and Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (though both make an appearance), the conductor will present all of Debussy's orchestral works as well as making a studio recording for release next summer.

This is complimented by an Auld Alliance strand, tying together Scottish and French music and, at its best, music from one country inspired by the other (such as Berlioz's overture Rob Roy and Wallace's suite from Pelléas et Mélisande). I'm glad that the themes are stronger this year than last: great concertos and great symphonies were a bit too vague and generic. That said, I think it's a slight stretch to tie Mendelssohn's 3rd and Bruch's Scottish Fantasy into this one.

Haydn, Szymanowski and Stravinsky from Ticciati and the SCO

Last week, Robin Ticciati drew to a close the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's series pairing Stravinsky and Haydn. This time, the two composers were joined by Karol Szymanowski for his 2nd violin concerto (the same one, incidentally, that Stéphane Denève and the RSNO treated us to back in November). It is a piece that pushes a chamber orchestra to the limits of its definition and yet Ticciati controlled his forces such that it remained intimate. It's an interesting and compelling piece, and there can't be too many violin concertos that open with a piano. It is cast in a single movement and provides a wonderful platform for the soloist to showcase his technical prowess. In this case, the job fell to Renaud Capuçon who provided an interesting contrast with the RSNO's choice of Frank Peter Zimmerman, having a much warmer and more romantic sound to his interpretation, yet lacking nothing in technical finesse. This was especially apparent during his treatment of the long cadenza at the work's centre. Personally I think I'd chose Zimmerman's style, almost clinical in its clarity and precision but without actually being cold and emotionless, as it seemed to suit the work slightly better, but that's not to argue it was in anyway superior - just different. The fine solo playing was matched by the orchestra whose accompaniment was well judged, particularly in the work's several large and emotive climaxes.

Stravinsky's Orpheus rounded off the evening. The piece is gentle and beautiful, rather that the turbulence one might expect. It also has some great moments for the brass, so it was fortunate that they were on fine form, from the trombones and the quietly muted trumpet near the outset to the emotionally devastating horn theme towards the end. But to single the brass out would be unfair, from ominous descent of Pippa Tunnell's opening harp notes, through the winds and the strings, to her return at the start of the short final scene, you could not complain.

Sunday 13 March 2011

Parsifal at English National Opera, or A Blast from the Past

The Nikolaus Lehnhoff production of Parsifal was one the earliest Wagner operas I saw, and also my first Parsifal (I reckon I have now seen it more frequently than any other Wagner). As far as I can recall it has never been revived at the Coliseum since it's original outing in 1999 (if someone could confirm or dispute this I would be interested to know since the Coliseum's publicity about “last revival” strikes me as a bit misleading if it is also only the first). I had powerful memories of that original experience, and those swayed me to attend despite serious misgivings (on the back of hearing him several times at the Royal Opera in the last couple of seasons) about whether John Tomlinson could possibly manage Gurnemanz in a way which would be bearable to listen to. It turned out on that score I was worrying needlessly, as I shall explain, but equally I did not have the overwhelming evening which seems to have been the lot of many fellow critics.

The production itself had rather more infelicities than I had remembered, and I have a sneaking suspicion that they may have been submerged originally by the overwhelming impact of hearing the music for the first time (in 1999 I was totally blown away by the conclusion of Act One). The most serious such infelicity is the dyno-rod flowermaidens. I have only ever seen one production of this opera where the flowermaidens were voluptuous and enticing and on the strength of the impact of that way of staging the scene (and the fact that every other time it has failed to work for me) I have concluded that it really is the only solution. This problem I had remembered. The main one I had forgotten was the complete disjunction between text and staging in the Good Friday scene, as Gurnemanz and Parsifal sing of natural beauties while sitting in a barren concrete wasteland. On the whole these are outweighed by the many powerful images – the railway line curving away into the distance at the start of Act Three, the barren grey landscapes inhabited by the knights. Most of all, this is not a production which is afraid of the still tableau in which the music is allowed to speak for itself – an attribute that too many of Berry's commissions this season have shown no grasp of at all.

Sunday 6 March 2011

Where's Runnicles Gets Lyrical (a little behind schedule)

For several years now, Edinburgh's UNESCO City of Literature trust has run an annual reading campaign. Last year's Carry a Poem was rather fun, not least for the way SCO programmes that month carried the conductor or soloist's favourite poem, which was a nice insight. This year the campaign fits even better with our primarily musical focus: it is Let's Get Lyrical. I say is, more properly I mean was, since it ran throughout February and it's now March!

For various reasons, I never got around to blogging my favourite lyrics. However, there seems no particularly good reason not to do so now. Great lyrics are, after all, timeless. For good measure, I've put together a Spotify playlist of my selections (well, most of them - an annoying number are unavailable).

Friday 4 March 2011

BBC Legends come to Spotify

In general, given the choice, I will almost always take a live recording over a studio one. Yes, it may not have quite the same immaculate sound (though there are plenty of studio recordings that disappoint in this regard), it may have mistakes, it may have coughing, clapping and other audience noise, but what it may also often have is a drama and a sense of occasion that you almost never get in the studio. Of course, I'm talking about real live recordings, the kind that preserve exactly a concert, not the "live" recordings of today that are in fact cobbled together from a string of concerts (take the Concertegbouw's live Sibelius 1st symphony - four concerts over four months), perhaps patched after or with rehearsal takes; these are a halfway house sometimes delivering the worst of both worlds (although there are many excellent examples too). Still, I wish more of the orchestra labels would be a little braver and release real live events. Given the enduring success of many older, real live recordings, it is puzzling.

For this reason, I'm a fan of the BBC Legends series, which mines the BBC's rich archive to serve up genuine live performances although (a little unfortunately in my view) generally not preserving complete concerts. Following on from my post about great orchestras earlier this week, my iPod listening at work has been drawn one piece at a time from a selection of British orchestras. Today I came to the Hallé and instead of Elder, whom I've been listening to a lot lately, I turned to their extraordinary partnership with glorious John Barbirolli. Scrolling through the many choices available, one jumped out at me: a BBC Legends disc of Bruckner's 9th symphony.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

World's Greatest....

What does the Berliner Philharmoniker have in common with my favourite comic book? Don't fear, I'm not about to claim that they like to wear their underwear over the top of their trousers or that they are endowed with superpowers and like to fight crime of an evening. The comparison is rather more prosaic: that they have both been descried as the greatest. Actually, I'm cheating slightly since the Observer article that prompted this post went for 'best' rather than 'greatest' and because, rather cheekily, Stan Lee bestowed the title on his own creation way back in issue 3, but why waste a good FF reference.

Now, while the Fantastic Four are firm favourites of mine (probably something of a minority position), are they also, as Lee claimed, the greatest? In many ways, and from a literary perspective, there are other comics that would have a much stronger claim to any such moniker. But having a soft spot for something is very different to claiming it as the greatest (the reasons for my love of them belong to another post, one that I hope one day to find the time to write). Regardless,  I have no objective argument that they are either the best or the greatest, and have no desire to find one: there are so many great comic books and much the same is true of orchestras.