Monday 31 October 2011

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

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

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

Saturday 29 October 2011

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

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

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

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

Friday 28 October 2011

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

"There is nothing new under the sun"

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

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

Sunday 16 October 2011

Sergiu Celibidache's extraordinary Bruckner

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

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

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Ticciati and the SCO open their season with the Symphonie Fantastique

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

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

Thursday 6 October 2011

Here's Runnicles, with Beethoven, Strauss and Elgar

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

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

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

Saturday 1 October 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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