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.