Sunday 11 November 2018

The Silver Tassie BBC SO Wigglesworth

The BBC Symphony’s Total Immersion weekend looked like a conceptual nightmare on paper – a contemporary music festival to commemorate the First World War? – but this centrepiece proved inspired programming. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie, based on the 1928 anti-war play by Seán O’Casey, libretto by Amanda Holden, was written in the late 90s for English National Opera. It was soon taken up by companies in Ireland and Germany, but the most recent performance anywhere was the ENO revival in 2002. It is a big opera, and no doubt expensive to stage, but, as this performance demonstrated, it is a strong and musically compelling work.
The story, of an enthusiastic footballer crippled on service in the Great War, then ostracised by his community, wouldn’t seem an obvious vehicle for Turnage’s jazz-inflected, propulsive Modernism. Turnage makes the most of the musical episodes in the story, but these are always well integrated into the music. The whole score is alive with invention and energy, and Turnage finds an ideal pace and span for almost every scene.
This was a concert performance, with a minimal staging concept, directed by Kenneth Richardson. Singers sang from stands, and there were a few props, most notably a football trophy and a wheelchair. Some lighting effects and dry ice were included too, but Richardson mostly trusted the music to provide atmosphere and drama.
Act I begins at home, and its real kitchen sink drama (Dublin, we presume, but no Irish accents). Harry and Barney (AshleyRiches, pictured above, and Alexander Robin Baker) return victorious from a football championship, their trophy the eponymous Silver Tassie. Meanwhile, Harry’s parents (Mark le Brocq and Susan Bickley) have to deal with a domestic episode upstairs, sheltering Mrs Foran (Claire Booth) from her abusive husband Teddy (Marcus Farnsworth), before Harry, Barney and Teddy all leave for the front. Throughout all this, Susie (Sally Matthews), a god-fearing neighbour, dishes out biblical condemnations of all involved. Strong casting all round here. Ashley Riches commands the stage. His baritone isn’t huge, but his tone is focussed and his singing always expressive. Marcus Farnsworth is suitably menacing, and Claire Booth suitably frenetic. Sally Matthews is luxury casting as Susie, as is Louise Adler as Harry’s girlfriend, Jessie. Turnage engages closely with the text, his vocal writing working closely with the poetry of O’Casey’s lines. He was helped by excellent diction from the cast (amplified to counter balance problems, but never to distraction).
None of the leads appear in Act II, which takes place in the trenches and instead featured the gentlemen of the BBC Singers. The act opens with a monologue from ‘The Croucher’ (an excellent Brindley Sherratt, standing in for an indisposed John Tomlinson), a death-like figure, casting dark prophesies in Old Testament verses. The whole act is beautifully surreal, especially as Turnage gives it an eerily quiet mood, most of the dialogue given to singers in the chorus, who all handle it well. A boys’ choir (Finchley Children’s Music Group) makes an appearance as stretcher-bearers, another surreal twist, and the act culminates with a game of football. This was the one scene that could have used more staging, although having the boys reacting as a crowd of enthusiastic spectators made for a convincing substitute.
Act III takes place in a military hospital. Harry is now in a wheelchair and Teddy has been blinded. Harry is bitter, and Turnage twists his musical ideas, now expressed with spite and irony. He manages it, and with impressive subtlety. Only one section feels over-wrought, the end of the act, where it becomes clear that Jessie has left Harry for Barney – a pivotal moment in the story, but drawn out too far in the music. In the final act, all the characters return for a dance, and emotions come to a head. Turnage employs an onstage band, another challenge for concert performance. But the instruments are grouped separately stage right, and the effect still works. All the lead characters are now transformed: Harry is bitter, Teddy has become sympathetic, Barney has become brutal, and Susie has lost her inhibitions. There is plenty of melodrama here too, but Turnage focuses as much on these transformed figures, compellingly rendered by all the cast.
Ryan Wigglesworth is a dynamic conductor, but not flamboyant, and his agile but controlled technique is ideal for Turnage’s score. He also has plenty of opera experience, which shines through in his pacing and keen communication with the singers. An excellent performance too from the BBC Symphony Orchestra: focussed, precise and always well-balanced. They were as much the stars in this long-awaited and richly deserved revival. Too bad it was a one-off. 

This performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available to listen on demand for 29 days at:

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Visit to Teldex Studios Berlin

I’m just back from a weekend in Berlin, to interview Antoine Tamestit about his recording of Jörg Widmann’s Viola Concerto – look out for the feature in the February 2018 issue of The Strad. While there, I got the opportunity to sit in on recording sessions for the coupling on the CD, Tamestit’s arrangements of Widmann’s Violin and Cello Duos, some viola and cello, others for violin and viola. Much of my work involves writing and editing reviews of classical recordings, but most talk about the actual production process is speculative, so the visit to Teldex Studios proved very interesting. What follows is a photo diary of the day, showing how it’s done, with no secrets left untold – though when I made that threat to producer Martin Sauer, he laughed ‘we have no secrets!’, so I’m holding him to that.

The studio is in a quiet residential suburb in the south-west of the city. Like many recording studios, it was previously a ballroom. 

The interior walls are a patchwork of acoustic panelling and exposed battens, where the reverberation has been fine tuned for optimum resonance. The main control room is on the former stage (see the ominous window below), though for this session a smaller room was used, more convenient for chamber work.

The producer for the day, Martin Sauer (below centre) is a legend in the industry (check out this list of credits). He works both for the studio itself, which is an independent company, and for Harmonia Mundi, for whom this recording was being made. Martin explained that the name, Teldex, reflected the studio’s history (I’m paraphrasing his excellent English – he spoke English to me, German to the engineer and French to the artists, all fluently). The studio had previously belonged to Teldec, but became independent in 2002 (plenty more about the company that their website, taking several producers with it, including Martin. 

Since then, it’s done well for awards, and this display of Grammys greets visitors at the door, about half of them are Martin’s.

But down to business. The schedule looked punishing, nine movements, all in the can by the end of the day. I was surprised how musical Martin’s input was in the proceedings, making regular suggestions, mostly about balance but also about more subtle interpretive issues. He doesn’t do much contemporary music, he tells me, as their isn’t the commercial demand, about once every two years. So, for this session he had to rely on the performers, as they’d worked with the composer, then he added ‘ ... of course, if it was Brahms ...  ’ Even so, as the recording got under way, he was really getting into the music ...

... and annotating thoroughly ...

A brief lunch break offered a chance to look around the place. All sorts of strange things collect in recording studios. At a stretch of the imagination, I could think of reasons for the barometer, but the vintage motorbike?


Martin showed me the studio archive – very impressive! Every session is recorded onto a 500GB hard drive, which is filed in one of these boxes along with the annotated score. The artists named on these box spines are astonishing; everybody who’s anybody has been through here at some stage.

Here are a few more images. The picture at the bottom is of Martin (right) with the artists (L-R) Antoine Tamestit, Marc Bouchkov and Bruno Philippe. Thanks to them for their hospitality, and good luck with the edit, as they say. Look out for the album, on Harmonia Mundi early next year – it should be a good one, it sounded great in the studio – and, as mentioned above, my interview with Antoine in The Strad next February.

Wednesday 4 October 2017

Schnittke Studies – Second Review

I’ve just received another excellent review for our Schnittke Studies volume, this time by Ivan Moody in the Musicological Annual. Thanks Ivan for your perceptive reading and encouraging words, and for the contributions to my (still mercifully brief!) errata list. (The review can be found here in pdf for easier reading.)