Sunday 15 May 2016

Zender's Winterreise at the Barbican, or, Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should

Note: This is a review of the performance on Thursday 12th May 2016.

The original version of Schubert's song cycle Winterreise is, in the right hands, one of the most searing pieces in the repertoire. Although it requires only two performers it possesses remarkable emotional and musical range. I was sceptical in advance about whether the work could be improved, or even equalled, either via orchestration or, particularly, the addition of multimedia elements. Committed performances from Ian Bostridge and the Britten Sinfonia under Baldur Bronnimann did not convince me otherwise.

I mistakenly thought, until I read the programme afterwards, that Zender's orchestration dated from the Weimar era, in fact it dates from the early 1990s – possibly I was misled by elements in the design of this performance which seemed rather influenced by the world of Kander & Ebb's Cabaret. Schubert's original is still largely detectable, and the additions are not challenging but rather bring to mind other familiar voices such as Bartok, Strauss, Wagner and, obviously, Weimar cabaret. The sound world stretches from slightly twisted Schubertesque chamber music to Hammer Horroresque film score. Overall, it struck me musically as an interesting occasional piece but one which suffers from fundamental weaknesses in comparison to the original. Zender is so busy bigging up effects that he doesn't leave the space for the listener's imagination that the original piano accompaniment allows. More seriously it manages, for me, to lose the emotional power of that original. The finest moments, tellingly, came when the orchestration was sparest and Bostridge was delivering the vocal line straight out (Der Wegweiser and Das Wirtshaus in particular).

Saturday 14 May 2016

Why the European Union Youth Orchestra should be Saved

I am a passionate pro-European. One of my reasons for this, which doesn't get the kind of public emphasis that I think it should, is that it is ever more important in a world where nasty, narrow-minded nationalism seems resurgent that we break down rather than increase barriers between nationalities. I consider the European Union for all its faults still a powerful vehicle in enabling that to happen. One important way in which I believe such an agenda can be taken forward is through finding ways to bring members of different nationalities together in pursuit of a larger goal. For 40 years, in the no doubt small world of classical music the EU has facilitated this through its support of the European Union Youth Orchestra.

I am not claiming that the mere fact of uniting young people from 28 nations in a symphony orchestra is necessarily going to change the world but I do firmly believe that it achieves two powerful and important things. Firstly, it can, and the evidence from past participants clearly shows that it does, forge links between those who participate who might otherwise never have encountered one another. Links which go on to enable other such cooperation and moments of understanding. Secondly, it is a powerful symbol of cooperation between nations at a time when we badly need such things. As an aside the Orchestra regularly delivers high quality performances (I recall with particular pleasure a fabulous one of Busoni's mad Piano Concerto at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2012).