Thursday, 30 June 2011

Pollini plays Chopin, Debussy and Boulez. Royal Festival Hall 28.6.11

Chopin: Preludes Op.28
Debussy: Preludes, Book 1, Nos. 2,3,4,6,7,10
Boulez: Piano Sonata No.2
Maurizio Pollini piano
The Southbank's "Pollini Project" culminated on Tuesday in classic style, with the venerable pianist giving a recital that perfectly balanced the core repertoire for which he is celebrated with a good dose of the acerbic Modernism for which he is equally well known.
The first half was devoted to Chopin's Op.28 Preludes, and it would be hard to imagine a better performance. Physically, Pollini looks frail these days, and his first entrance onto the Festival Hall stage seemed cautious and unsteady. But as soon as he sat down at the piano all that changed. Chopin is the ideal repertoire for Pollini, it shows off both the conviction of his interpretive approach and the intimacy that he is able to imbue in any performance space, even one as large (and packed) as the Festival Hall. He takes liberties with the music, although any pianist who doesn't pull Chopin around is missing a trick. His rubato and his dynamics go right to the extremes. Considering how famous most of these Preludes are, it is impressive how unpredictable Pollini makes them. Rubato is never employed simply to articulate the phrasing, and everything about the interpretations seems designed to say something new with the music. But Pollini maintains a lightness of touch that prevents anything from sounding pedantic or forced. He brings out the Romantic heart of this music, but without ever resorting to sentimentality or cliché.
Debussy's Preludes also benefited from Pollini's disciplined yet emotive approach, but they didn't shine in quite the same way as the Chopin. Things occasionally seemed a little too deliberate here, and Pollini's determination to make a statement with every phrase prevented some of the movements from taking off.
But Pollini's playing is all about the bigger picture, and like the Chopin, the Debussy was impressively distinctive and coherent. Both composers benefit from the attentions of a pianist who can place all the notes in a meaningful context. Unlike many younger pianists, Pollini doesn't attempt to play every note with precision and clarity. Instead, they are all subsumed into his presentation of the work as a whole. His playing is precise at the structural level, yet often variable in its detail.
That's not how we expect to hear the music of the post-war avant garde, so the Boulez Sonata that closed the programme was given a very interesting reading. In the opening pages, it seemed that Pollini lacked the rhythmic surety to project the music's precise proportions. But it soon became clear this interpretation was going to share all the qualities of the Chopin and Debussy that preceded it. Boulez claims to have been attempting to break down the structural certainties of the sonata format with this work, but Pollini seemed intent on reinstating them. The first movement, for example, builds up to a huge climax, which is followed by a wistful, or at least quiet, coda. Pollini made these contrasting final sections the focus of the movement, and ensured that everything up to this point moved towards it. And despite initial appearances, this was a precise reading. Perhaps it seemed wayward because Pollini was putting his own mark on the music. All too often, when this music is played at all, performers feel obliged to simply recreate what they find on the page, the myriad performance instructions giving apparent license to hand over all artistic authority to the composer. Not so Pollini; whatever music he sits down to, you know you are always going to get a real interpretation.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies, London Sinfonietta 16 June 2011

Leigh Melrose (baritone), London Sinfonietta, Baldur Brönnimann (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 16.6.11 
Birtwistle: Virelai
Birtwistle: Secret Threatre
Maxwell Davies: Eight Songs for a Mad King
On first appearances, the Southbank's annual Meltdown Festival would seem to revel in the randomness of its programming. What other festival would include a concert of Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies for which the programme is filled almost exclusively with essays about Ray Davies? But there is logic here, and the London Sinfonietta's contribution to this year's event sits squarely at the centre of its theme. Davies oversees a the festival in the year of the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain, so Britishness, eccentricity and innovation are the guiding principles of the programming. And what better contribution could the London Sinfonietta make than a concert featuring seminal works from two of this county's greatest and most eccentric composers?
Performances of Birtwistle's Secret Theatre are frustratingly rare, so it is just as well that the piece is just as good on record. What you miss from the CD are the movements around the stage. An empty platform is set up to the left of the ensemble, and as players join the main melodic line, they move over to it, forming a sort of variable concertante group. But the musical distinction between what happens on and off the platform is clear enough, so this isn't really necessary. The performance from the London Sinfonietta was passionate and dramatic....I say the London Sinfonietta, but the ensemble seems to have turned into a scratch band, with different players on the stage every time they perform. I think there were a total of three performers this evening that I had heard perform as part of the Sinfonietta before. The changes don't seem to be affecting the standards too much, although the ensemble of the woodwinds wasn't as tight as in the past, and the control of the brass sound in the climaxes could have been better.
The concert opened with a more recent Birtwistle score, Virelai. Nothing of any particular interest to report here I'm afraid. Some renaissance tunes are given the Birtwistle treatment, played out of synch with their accompaniments and subjected to some exotic orchestration. Technically, it all works, and composer is still able to give everything he writes that amazing sense of inner purpose that makes every compositional decision seem providential. But programming it with one of his greatest scores does this new work little justice.
The Eight Songs for a Mad King also have a tendency to overshadow, and they were certainly the main attraction this evening. The performance could perhaps be described as semi-staged, without props or costumes, and certainly without cages. But what really matters in a performance of this work is the soloist, and Leigh Melrose put in a formidable performance. He has a great voice, but his acting ability is what makes him ideal for the role. He is a tall man, with long gangly limbs. He was lit from above by a single spotlight, and that was about all the staging support he got, yet he was utterly convincing. The work calls for a soloist who is a singer, a speaker, an actor, a performer in the broadest sense, and Melrose ticks all the boxes. The vocal requirements are beyond the realms of possibility, so it seems churlish to list the few failings of his musical performance. For instance, the first octave of his falsetto is clear and penetrating, but the octave above that lacks power. Of course it does, it is hardly worth noting. The instrumentalists gave him excellent support, sometimes competing with him at the climaxes, but that is in the spirit of the piece too. I thought it was a shame that the London Sinfonietta gave away the twist in the violin part (which I'm not going to reveal here) implicitly in the programme note and explicitly on Twitter a few hours before the performance. Perhaps everyone in the audience had heard it before, but I doubt it.
Certainly, nobody in the audience will have seen the part of the mad king acted as well as this before. The evening was a fair one for the London Sinfonietta (whoever they are), a worthy contribution to Ray Davies' Meltdown Festival, and a triumph for Leigh Melrose.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

LSO, Haitink, Pires: Mozart and Bruckner. Barbican 14 June 2011

Mozart, Bruckner: Maria JoãoPires (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 14.6.11
Mozart: Piano Concerto No.27 K595
Bruckner: Symphony No.4 'Romantic'

A last minute soloist substitution is rarely a good omen. This evening's LSO concert looked like a sure-fire hit, with Murray Perahia's Schumann Concerto in the first half and Haitink’s Bruckner Four in the second. But Maria João Pires performing Mozart's 27th Concerto seemed like a potentially disappointing second best, and so it proved.
Perhaps the circumstances worked against this performance, or at least my enjoyment of it. As the four-square and indistinct opening phrases of the Mozart began, my mind was still filled with thoughts of those sublime modulations of the Schumann and the what Perahia might have made of all those delicious piano figurations.
Even so, the performance of the Mozart that followed was uninspired by any standards. Pires gave us all the notes, but without life or passion. The orchestra followed suit, and perhaps Haitink is to blame for keeping the woodwind soloists under too much control. Form and formality have their place in Mozart performance, but in this one that is all we got. The absolute precision of the playing is worthy of mention, Pires' passage work in particular, and the tight ensemble of the strings. Technically speaking, it was a perfect performance – but in the worst possible sense.
The second half was a different story. Haitink is well known for his Bruckner, and this performance of the Fourth Symphony was up there with his best work. There is a fine line in this music between individuality and affectation. In my opinion, that is a line Rattle crossed when he conducted the Ninth with the LSO earlier this year, but Haitink has an uncanny ability to stay right on the edge without ever taking anything to undue excess.
He is known for his slow tempos, but the outer movements here were surprisingly fast. Again, not so fast as to take the reading to extremes, but brisker than average. The inner movements showed more of his trademark breadth, and the whole of the Andante and the Trio of the Scherzo were both characterised by slower tempos, filled out with opulent orchestral textures.
But whatever speeds Haitink chooses, his subtle and fluid sense of rubato always keeps the music alive. The opening of the finale offers a brief glimpse into the inner workings of Haitink's Bruckner. The cellos and basses play detached crotchets for about 40 bars, making the subtle increase in tempo and volume explicit. But even here the effect is so gradual that you have to listen hard for it. Less subtle, but just as effective, are the points at which a thundering climax comes to an abrupt halt. Then Haitink holds the pregnant pause for just exactly the right duration, and then a wind or horn soloist, or sometimes pizzicato strings enter, their new tempo pre-formed in Haitink's mind and providing the ideal refreshment for the musical palette, genius!
The orchestral playing was again superb, but in this half inspired as well. The control of the brass sound in the climaxes was particularly impressive. More impressive, in fact, than the brass in the Chicago Symphony performance of the Seventh Symphony that Haitink conducted at the Festival Hall a few years ago. All the woodwind solos were vibrant and free, even when they were also articulaing one of Haitink's gradual tempo changes. The ensemble of the strings was again of the highest possible order, as was the beauty of the string tone. In short, the Bruckner received a perfect performance – in the best possible sense.
Gavin Dixon
The concert will be repeated on Thursday 16 June, when it will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.

Friday, 10 June 2011

L'amico Fritz Opera Holland Park

Fritz Eric Margiore
Suzel Anna Leese
David David Stephenson
Beppe Patricia Orr
Caterina Susan Young
Hanezo Simon Wilding
Frederico Robert Burt

Conductor Stuart Stratford
Director Annilese Miskimmon
Designer Nicky Shaw
Lighting Designer Mark Jonathan

Holland Park's second new production of the season looks to be another success for them. L'amico Fritz, while it is obscure, is a classic verismo confection, just the sort of thing that this company does well. And the production excels in many ways: musically it is energetic and precise, the staging is inventive, and everything fits well into the summer festival ambiance – especially that famous Cherry Duet in the second act that seems perfectly timed for the first weeks of June.
But first a word about the opera itself: the libretto is dreadful. Really, really dreadful. It was Mascagni's first opera after Cavalleria rusticana, and apparently he was annoyed that the success of the earlier work had been attributed to its libretto. So, second time round, he wanted a libretto that would not overshadow his score. There is little chance of that happening with this feeble effort. The plot, if you can call it that, is that Fritz, a wealthy bachelor, has vowed never to marry and enters into a bet with a friendly Rabbi to this effect. But then he meets the girl of his dreams, Suzel, and so does marry after all. That's it, there's no back story, no character development, nothing.
The music is better, but not good enough to save the work from its libretto. Mascagni pulls out all the stops in terms of expressive and romantic music. As Robert Thicknesse notes in his programme essay, the composer knows how to keep the music modulating at just the right rate to maintain the interest. I would add that he knows what he is doing with the orchestration as well. He knows when he is going overboard, especially with the brass, but does it anyway when an act finale needs it. Some of the Mickey Mouse effects can get annoying. Somebody drinks and we get an ascending staccato chromatic scale. Somebody mentions a storm and we get legato chromatic scales, that sort of thing. But on the whole the music is competently written, and the composer really knows how to get the best from his singers.
Director Annilese Miskimmon and designer Nicky Shaw sensibly treat this paper-thin scenario as a tabula rasa to do with as they like. What they come up with is a 1950s business environment, with Fritz as a property tycoon and the outer acts taking place in his state-of-the-art offices. We are in Mad Men territory here, with many of the characters smoking continuously and a vague threat of violence hanging over some of the scenes: at one point in Act II it even turns out the rabbi is handy.
The whole premise works well enough. There is no tension between the libretto and the updated setting because the libretto is not up to the fight. The sets are elegant and find inventive things to do with the huge expanse of space on the Holland Park stage. The scene change at the start of Act II is impressive. Without giving too much away, they basically construct a house on the stage as we wait. (No music from Mascagni here, that's a mark against the score.)
The cast are all on the young side, but the standard was impressively high. Eric Magiore has a characterful voice that keeps his portrayal of the title character interesting throughout. He can also really act, which is especially impressive given how little dramatic material he is provided by the libretto. His crucial weakness is a lack of power in the loudest sections. He is required to crank up the volume for the finales to both the second and the third acts, but in both cases he disappears beneath the orchestra at the crucial moment.
If Anna Leese has a weakness, it is her acting, although again, the two dimensional role she is given can't be much help. But she more than makes up for this with her singing, which is very impressive indeed. To look at her, I'd guess she is in her mid-20s, yet her voice has an astonishing maturity. She brings a range of colours to the role, she has power when needed, and she can do that heavy but controlled vibrato that these verismo parts require. She has been all over the publicity for this production, and listening to her it is easy to understand why the company is so proud of her. Just one reservation about her singing, she too struggles with those finales at the ends of the acts, and has a tendency to go very sharp when pressed into loud, high phrase endings.
David Stephenson puts in a characterful performance as the rabbi. His baritone voice is a little on the light side, but there is a valuable intimacy about his sound. Again, the libretto gives the singer very little to go on in terms of fleshing out the character, but Stephenson's voice makes up for the lack. He might be better suited to the recital hall though, and I'd love to hear him sing some Schubert.
The singers in the supporting roles all supported well, and I've no real qualms about any of them. I had heard before the performance that Patricia Orr, in the trouser role of Beppe, was suffering from a sore throat, but she sounded fine to me. Perhaps when in better health she can add a little more projection, but it's not really necessary.
A great performance from the orchestra, better I thought than they played for Don Pasquale on Tuesday. There were no significant problems with balance, ensemble or tuning. A special mention should definitely go to conductor Stuart Stratford. One advantage of the unusually pit at Holland Park is that everybody in the audience can see the conductor work, and boy does this conductor work! He knows exactly what the orchestra and singers are doing at any given time, and makes sure they put everything into it. Holland Park is clearly a house, or rather a tent, that takes the innovation and professionalism of its staging seriously. But whatever you do with L'amico Fritz, the scenario and dramaturgy are always going to be fatally flawed. Just as well, then that they take the musical side of things just as seriously, and kudos to all the musicians, and especially to Stuart Stratford, for making this production a spectacular musical success.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Don Pasquale, Opera Holland Park 7.6.11

Don Pasquale Donald Maxwell
Dr Malatesta Richard Burkhard
Ernesto Colin Lee
Norina Majella Cullagh
A Notary Simon Wilding

Conductor Richard Bonynge
Director Stephen Barlow
Designer Colin Richmond
Lighting Designer Mark Jonathan
City of London Sinfonia

Donald Maxwell as Don Pasquale. 
Photo Fritz Curzon

This new production of Don Pasquale is described in the programme as the "first ever at Opera Holland Park". Why use the word "ever"? Is it that much of a surprise that the opera has never before been given here. Well, considering what an ideal work it is for this setting, the implied surprise might just be justified. It is classic buffa and the audience went wild for it. It's not too long, which is just as well considering we are all effectively sitting outside long past ten at night. And most importantly of all, it plays to the strengths of the impressive ensemble that the company has gathered.
Surely the biggest name, and probably the single most important factor in the musical success of this production, is veteran conductor Richard Bonynge. He lives for opera buffa and was really in his element this evening. The whole thing was light as a feather, and the sparkle and life that he infused into the performance, both vocal and orchestral, brought freshness to every phrase.
On the stage, director and fellow Australian Stephen Barlow, sets the action at a fish and chip kiosk on an unnamed, but thoroughly British, seafront. The conceit works well, with the kiosk standing in for the Don's "casa", and every other site-specific reference in the libretto cunningly relocated to the seafront setting (and with many of the updates incorporated into the irreverent surtitle translations). The long stretch of promenade and good chunk of beach give the stage designers something to do with all the space on the huge stage. That still leaves the director a few problems though, given the incongruity between the size of the stage and the cast of only five. His solution is to have little vignettes going on in other corners, runners, an old couple, some patrolling police, that sort of thing. In fact, many of these fit so well into the London park setting that when they come on to the stage they cause a brief moment of concern that they haven't just wondered in from the park. The premise works best in the first two acts, but is stretched in the third. Here, Norina's profligacy is demonstrated by a redesign of the kiosk as some sort of space-age ice cream bar. True enough, I think I once saw something like it on the seafront at Littlehampton, but that is not the point. They also need to relocate the denouement scene from the garden, as is explicitly stated in the libretto, to the beach. By the end, it doesn't quite feel as snug a fit as it did at the start, but it is worth it for the apt reinvention it brings to the first two acts.
Donald Maxwell is excellent in the title role. He plays the part for all it is worth, by turns lecherous, rude, and downright embarrassing for everyone else involved. His fist entrance is wonderful, careering about on a mobility scooter. What a great prop! I was hoping he was going to stay in it for the whole opera, although perhaps that might have taken the idea a bit far. His voice doesn't quite have the power it used to, but then he is playing a character in his 70s. The clarity of his diction is fine, and he is able to keep up with the patter.
The cast work well as an ensemble. Each of the singers has a voice suited to their role, and (with the possible exception of Maxwell) there are no real standout performances. Richard Burkhard is as sly as he is smooth as Dr Malatesta. Precision is the chief quality of his singing, and he he has a slight upper hand on Maxwell when it comes to the patter. Majella Cullagh is great fun as Norina. She has all the notes for the part, even the astronomical ones, but the quality of her sound isn't as pretty in the upper register as some sopranos and she doesn't quite have the rhythmic precision in the florid run passages. I was surprised to read that the name of the tenor singing Ernesto was Colin Lee, so impressive is his Italian I though it must be his native language. In fact, everything about him says Italian tenor, his tone, his languid phrasing, even his posture. He is one to watch, and surely an asset for any company working in the buffa repertoire.
The choir and orchestra where generally on good form. The start of the third act was slightly messy, musically speaking, with some ragged entries and suspect tuning, much of which was down to the choir. The City of London Sinfonia played with character and charm, their stylistic sensitivity to the music no doubt partly thanks to their conductor. The wide pit is a mixed blessing, it gives all the players elbow room, but can lead to coordination problems between the brass at one side and the woodwind at the other. (Incidentally, an excellent cornet solo in the second act, that's not the sort of thing you usually come to an opera for but it was a real musical highlight.)
The singing is amplified, but subtly so, and results in a good balance between stage and pit. [CORRECTION: No amplification, just good vocal projection, see comments.] Such are the practicalities of performing opera in what is essentially a huge tent. It is a sophisticated tent though, this is Kensington after all, and the seats are wonderfully comfortable. Just one word of advice if you are thinking of coming, and I'd recommend you do: bring a coat.
Gavin Dixon