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[Edit 2012-06-20 00.03: This post is now a little out of date and Passionato no longer exists at all as a download store.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.