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.

Sunday 3 July 2011

Chicken Soup with Barley at the Royal Court, or Small Tragedies behind Closed Doors

After sitting through three plus hours of the Old Vic's Shakespearean shout fest, Chicken Soup with Barley at the Royal Court came as something of a blessed relief. This is a very human, rather sad play about family disintegration, with a light leavening of political disillusionment.

Arnold Wesker's play follows the lives of the members of the Communist Kahn family beginning as they prepare to confront a demo by Mosley's Black shirts in late 1930s London, and carrying us through to twenty years later as both family and politics crumble. Everything is very open here, and a certain kind of ordinary. Contrasted with the games played by Albee, and the issues posed by Shakespeare's language, dilemmas here are very simply and openly expressed, but just as powerful. Crises happen suddenly, organically, and have to be lived with. The personal ones of family fortunes are easier to get across than the political since today a loss of faith in Communism is hardly surprising, yet the political does come across. There is something in this play of the great hope that things were going to be different after 1945 and the loss of hope, even on this small personal scale resonates.

As with the Almeida's Delicate Balance the play succeeds on the strength of a uniformly excellent ensemble. Particular mentions go to Tom Rosenthal (Ronnie Kahn) and Joel Gillman (David Simmons) both of whom make their professional debuts in this production, something I would not have guessed but for the programme so informing me. Alexis Zegerman (Cissie Kahn) brings off a striking transformation from loyal young socialist to disillusioned grass widow, and likewise Danny Webb (Harry Kahn) who successfully surmounts the challenges of what in some respects might be considered a rather thankless role. I look forward to seeing more of all of them (and indeed the rest of the supporting cast). Above all, though, I enjoyed watching one of my favourite actresses, Samantha Spiro (Sarah Kahn). Her role is the lynch pin of the drama and she delivered every line in a way that told (Mr Spacey might like to note that doing this without shouting can actually be very powerful).

Saturday 2 July 2011

The Mendes/Spacey Richard III, or Shout Louder God damn It!

This production of Richard III, perhaps not surprisingly given the two star names involved, is completely sold out. It pains me to report (and believe me there was pain involved in sitting through it) that this success is pretty thoroughly undeserved, and you should neither regret it if you didn't manage to secure a ticket, or rush hopefully for the returns queue.

This is the second time I have seen this play. The first time was as part of the RSC History Cycle at the Roundhouse in 2008. That experience was extraordinary, and one of the things I was curious to see was how this play would work when you did not have the experience of living through the history distilled in the previous seven plays. On one level, given the number of famous solo productions of Richard III it seemed odd to think that that could be an issue, on the other hand, so much of that past history seemed to me so central to the play when I saw it in the cycle it was hard to see how it would not be. My conclusion after this afternoon is that yes, it is a problem, and therefore you have to do something about it.

Sam Mendes does do something about it. He pretends that it isn't really there. The text of Richard III is filled with references to murders, betrayals, crimes committed by the surviving protagonists prior to the rise of the curtain. Yet for most of this show these are pretty empty words – the production gives us no sense of who those victims were, why the survivors behaved as they did. Their emotions consequently lack punch because the ghosts are far too ghostly. Mendes perhaps thought that too much bringing out of the back story might confuse his audience – this is certainly implied by his feeling the need to keep projecting the names of key protagonists in particular scenes onto the set – as if we can't possibly work out who any of them are for ourselves. If the problem stopped there it might be okay, but there is a lack of character to virtually all the performances (and this is despite the presence of some usually excellent performers in the company including Haydn Gwynne and Chuk Iwuji). Regular readers will know that one of my biggest bugbears is a failure to engage my emotions and this happened pretty completely in this performance.

A Delicate Balance at the Almeida, or Portraits of Desperation

About two months ago I had to go back to the parental home and clear out my remaining possessions. In the course of this I came upon a programme for a production of Albee's A Delicate Balance which it appeared I had been to see at the King's Theatre in Edinburgh in 1997. Astonishingly (given that this production had apparently featured Eileen Atkins and Maggie Smith) I could recall absolutely nothing about it – indeed I had booked for this production at the Almeida partially because I thought I hadn't seen the play before. In a bid to jog my memory, I read a synopsis of the play, but this didn't help either. After this evening's stunner I can only conclude that for whatever reason I was not ready to appreciate this play at that time.

The play takes place in the home of Agnes (Penelope Wilton) and Tobias (Tim Pigott-Smith), where also lives Agnes's alcoholic sister Claire (Imelda Staunton). One autumnal evening, they are descended upon by their best friends, Harry (Ian McElhinney) and Edna (Diana Hardcastle) who have suddenly been struck by a nameless fear and are seeking sanctuary. No sooner are they installed in daugher Julia's room, than Julia (Lucy Cohu) returns from the wreckage of her fourth marriage.

The first thing one has to get used to with Albee is the style. There is, or at least it feels as if there is, comparatively little in the way of dialogue. Instead scenes are dominated by sililoquys (often for me with overtones of Shakespeare, or for some peculiar reason the National's recent Phedre). This does occasionally present problems as one wonders why on earth everybody on stage is allowing the monologue in question to go on and on. However, the acting is of such class, and the crises of each of the characters so vividly brought out that it pulled me past this issue. That crisis I have tried to capture by the title of this review – each of the ensemble is facing desperation – all of them on some level I think arising from a failure of connection, and a realisation of the falsity of expressions of love and friendship.

Friday 1 July 2011

Christopher Alden's School Days, or, I refuse to dignify this with an extended analysis

Normally on this blog we take pride in the depth of our analysis, indeed we rather enjoy writing long reviews. This will be brief, probably the briefest thing I have ever written on the blog. If you want more depth on the particular madnesses of the production there are plenty of other critics who have provided it.

Such brevity is easy to stick to because the nature of the evening, from my point of view, is simple. This is a play without text by Christopher Alden about a collection of people who had a miserable time at school, coupled to a soundtrack by Benjamin Britten, and a text by Shakespeare. The problem is that the music and text are inhabiting a completely different world from Alden's play, that is Alden's play basically assumes that virtually nothing in the text means what it says. I cannot off the top of my head think of any other opera production I have seen which so consistently makes the words sung meaningless by the actions with which they are accompanied. About the music there is obviously more room for interpretation, but I felt that certain tendencies in the score were exaggerated in the performance to fit Alden's design and certain other elements hurried over or otherwise obscured (all of which in the first half slows things down to a painful crawl).

In fairness to the company stuck in this madness, they sing and play to a very high standard (indeed musically probably to a more consistently high standard than most of the rest of the season has attained) but the production is so utterly at odds with the music that it left me almost cold and often bored because of the way in which characters were rendered nonsensical.