Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Norrington conducts VW Elgar Holst

Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Holst: Gautier Capuçon, Philharmonia, Philharmonia Voices, Roger Norrington, Royal Festival Hall, London, 14.12.2010 (Gdn)
Vaughan Williams: Overture, The Wasps
Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor Op.85
Holst: The Planets Op.32
In these days of precocious 30-something conductors, Roger Norrington seems like a bastion of old school virtues. Where his younger Eastern European colleagues often seem willing to sacrifice almost any musical virtue in the cause of excitement and energy, Norrington takes a broader view. He's not averse to excitement – just listen to him getting carried away in the Mars movement of The Planets – but he is also a connoisseur of instrumental colour, of unusual balance (especially Holst's many bottom-heavy textures) and of smouldering, slow burning passion.
Then there is the vibrato issue. Norrington is famously of the opinion that any orchestral music before Gurrelieder should be played without string vibrato. All three of the British composers represented in this programme were active when Schoenberg was slowly crafting his early masterpiece, so they are all borderline cases. And while this was not a vibrato-free performance, there was much less of it from the strings than you'd usually expect. In my personal opinion, Norrington is quite right about the issue of vibrato, not that it should be banned at all costs, but rather that it has become a crutch for orchestral string sections, a means of projecting the sound while hiding any minor tuning issues. Norrington leads by example, and as this concert showed, you can find plenty of colour and excitement in an orchestral string sound without habitual vibrato. There was some vibrato in the solo lines, although even here it was usually kept to a minimum.
The concert opened with Vaughan Williams' The Wasps. Its not a very exciting overture, although the introduction is quite distinctive. Norrington started as he meant to go on, with tight control of the orchestra by means of a clearly stated beat throughout. The result was regimented but with plenty of poetry and great playing from the woodwind. The coda was a bit ragged but otherwise a fine opener.
Gautier Capuçon and Roger Norrington are very different musicians, and the tensions between them were evident throughout the Elgar. Capuçon plays with full-blooded Latin passion. His rubato is pronounced but usually tasteful, while his dynamics seem to be always exaggerated and not very tasteful at all. The notes are all there, apart from a few slips in the high runs in the first movement that seem to catch most cellists out, so any complaints I might have probably just come down to matters of taste.
Then there is his vibrato. There was hardly a single note that was spared this slow, pronounced wobble that seemed to stretch to about a quarter tone. My first thought was that he was doing it to annoy Norrington. Even if he wasn't, I can't imagine the conductor was pleased, especially considering the disciplined tone he was managing to draw from the orchestra. The string section of the orchestra had been cut right down for the Elgar, which given the sheer weight (vibrato-assisted of course) of the soloist's tone seemed extreme, and there were many occasions when the soloist completely drowned out the ensemble, a rare occurrence in any concerto. But it turned out that Capuçon's excesses were largely confined to the first movement. He played the semiquavers of the scherzo straight, put his cantabile style to good use in the largo and put some real drive into the finale. I got the impression that Norrington wanted to take the finale slower, so there was tension here as well between the soloist and the orchestra, but they seemed to have reached some kind of agreement by the end. Then Capuçon wholly redeemed himself with a stunning encore, Saint-Saëns' Swan with harp accompaniment – delicate, tasteful...perfect.
Along with his vibrato intervention, Norrington also gave a nod to early 20th century British performance practise by placing the 2nd violins on the right. He also put the basses along the back behind the horns, which is an American rather than British idea I understand. They certainly gave some punch from up there, especially with the help of what remains of the RFH organ. In The Planets, Mars and Jupiter were played at a volume I don't think I have ever heard from the Philharmonia before. But Norrington got the balance just right between energy and order. The Philharmonia strings proved throughout that they have no problems with tuning, even without the help of vibrato. But the real stars of the show were the woodwind. Karen Geoghegan made an unexpected appearance as guest principal bassoon, and while she didn't have many solos to speak of, she certainly led a tight section. It was great to hear the bass oboe too (I see Jane Evans is listed as guest principal bass oboe – how remiss of the Philharmonia not to have a regular bass oboist!).
Just once or twice I felt that Norrington's mature, balanced approach lacked passion, and it was usually in the quieter movements of the Holst. Venus was good (excellent horn solo) but was let down by some poor ensemble in the central section. Saturn was too fast, at least for my taste, although the finely judged relationships between the internal tempos helped it to stay together. And Neptune was, well it just wasn't mystical enough, just a bit too precise and calculated. A slight let down then, at the end of a concert that was otherwise a revelation in the renewing powers of performance styles of days gone by.
Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Andris Nelsons conducts Beethoven, Haydn, Gruber and Strauss

Beethoven, Haydn, Gruber, R. Strauss: Håken Hardenberger (trumpet), Philharmonia Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 7.12.10 (GDn)
Beethoven: Overture, Leonore No.3, Op.72a
Haydn: Trumpet Concerto in E flat, Hob. Vlle: 1
Gruber: Three Mob Pieces
R. Strauss: Ein Heldenleben Op.40
An impressive reputation precedes Andris Nelsons. His two seasons in Birmingham have met with near universal acclaim, and he now seems to be in demand in almost every corner of Europe. On the strength of this evening's performance, he is clearly a conductor who can find excitement in almost any repertoire. His ability to tap into the dramatic potential of the music is uncanny, and is no doubt a result of his many years experience in the opera pit.
Beethoven's Leonore 3 is the ideal vehicle for Nelsons operatic powers. He whips the piece up into a whirlwind, with glistening strings and strident wind solos. But the reading lacked clarity, partly perhaps due to the sheer size of the orchestra, but also because of almost continuous problems of coordination. Ensemble was an issue in all three works in this concert, but nowhere more so than here. Nelsons seemed unable to synchronise the winds and the strings. His cues to the soloists may not have been clear enough, or perhaps he was so concerned to get drama out of the strings that the wind entries passed him by.
Håken Hardenberger and Nelsons are polar opposites in many respects. Nelsons is a relative newcomer to the concert platform and often looks awkward and out of place in the limelight. Hardenberger, by contrast, relishes the attention and swaggers around like he owns the stage. Curiously, though, he is musically much more grounded than Nelsons. And details really matter. Every note he plays is cleanly articulated. In fact, he plays every note of the Haydn with a very hard tongue, which makes for maximum clarity but isn't really necessary. Nelsons remained on form with the Haydn, finding impressive drama in a score that is hardly known for excitement in its orchestral parts.
The Haydn concerto isn't much of a vehicle for Hardenberger's diverse skills, so he appended it with an encore that was about the same length; 'Three Mob Pieces' by H.K. Gruber. They are three jazzy character pieces, conservative in style and not particularly exiting on their own merits. Still, it was good to hear another side to Hardenberger's art, and the nonchalant, throwaway character of the pieces accorded well with his stage presence.
Despite his tender age, Nelsons must have gotten through a large chunk of the standard orchestral repertoire with orchestras around Europe. Even so, he is clearly most at home with the late Romantic Germans, and the Heldenleben that concluded the concert showed just what he is capable of. As with the first half, drama outweighed detail, but in Strauss' tone poems that isn't necessarily a problem. The sheer breadth of the opulent opening section promised impressive things ahead. And while there were again some issues of ensemble, the orchestra generally rose to the challenges. The brass and percussion sections delivered everything Nelsons needed in terms of power and attack. The quieter music was less impressive, or rather less passionate. The lush string melodies didn't quite swell and swoon as they might, and there was certainly room for a bit more rubato. Mrs Strauss (ie the solo violin) was on feisty form, again not an overly passionate reading, and one that made more of the acerbic episodes than the tender ones.
Some excellent Strauss then, but in a programme that never quite found its focus. Accusations of poor ensemble must seem strange to anybody who has heard Nelsons perform with the CBSO, or indeed the recording of his Lohengrin at Bayreuth this year. And the orchestra has no track record of such problems with other conductors. Perhaps a lack of rehearsal time is to blame, or maybe orchestra and conductor need a little more time to get to know each other. He is clearly a distinctive voice on the today's orchestral scene, but a little more familiarity between himself and his players is obviously necessary if he is to produce great things.
Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Philip Glass gets the South Park Treatment

I'm annoyed I missed this episode of South Park – by 13 years as it turns out. It is about a non-denominational school Christmas play called "Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo", which turns into an avant garde ballet when Glass is drafted in to write the music. Classic.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Kurtág Kafka-Fragments: Dawn Upshaw, Peter Sellars

Kurtág: Dawn Upshaw, Geoff Nuttall, Barbican Hall, London 11.11.10 (Gdn)
György Kurtág: Kafka-Fragments
Dawn Upshaw soprano
Geoff Nuttall violin
Peter Sellars director
I wonder what György Kurtág makes of Peter Sellars' 'interpretation' of his music. His feelings are probably similar to those of his compatriot Ligeti, whose reaction to Sellars' production of Le Grand Macabre consisted of a desperate attempt to get the show pulled, followed by a long sulk in the sound truck lasting the full length of the opening night performance. But that's not Kurtág's style, he is much more mild mannered and tends to avoid confrontation. When he dislikes a performer's reading of his music, he always says so, but he is also noble enough to respect another artists' viewpoint of the work he has created. If Kurtág ever met Sellars to discuss this project I can't imaging he got a word in edgeways. The experience of watching this performance is very similar: the music is diminutive and introverted yet perfectly formed, while the staging is bombastic and egotistical, with hundreds of visual ideas thrown at the music in the hope that one or two might make an impression.
'Kafka-Fragments' is a seminal Kurtág score. Its structure is abstract but tight, consisting of 40 short movements, each setting a Kafka aphorism. The scoring, at least in Kurtág's conception, is for soprano and violin, each an equal partner in the exploration of Kafka's ideas. Both parts are technically complex, although the musical vocabulary is limited. There is no sprechgesang in the soprano part, for example, and the most radical aspect of the violin writing is the detuning of the strings as the music plays. Emotionally, the music follows the constrained expressionism of Kafka's texts. There is everything here from sensual ecstasy to utter despair and everything in between, but the expression is always constrained, and the claustrophobia of Kafka's world accords well with Kurtág's solitary artistic path.
Peter Sellers is on a very different path. His currency is big ideas, complex narrative structures and metaphor-rich theatrical settings. His context for the Kafka-Fragments is a woman doing household chores and (presumably) exploring notions of transcendence through the radical contrast between her situation and the attenuated mysticism of Kafka's disjointed thoughts. It is a brave approach in some ways, but it really doesn't work. The violence it does to Kurtág's delicate score is far in excess of any insights it might offer, and the imposition of the mundane into an artistic environment that is anything but is irrelevant at best. One of the great things about Kurtág's score is the way that the singer and the violinist perform as equals. Here though, the acting singer automatically subordinates the violinist to the role of accompaniment. And Sellers' response to Kafka's words is meagre in comparison to Kurtág's; concrete statements in the text are acted out pedantically, while abstract phrases are all but ignored.
Musically, the performance was good, but it really felt like an American reading of a central European score. Both Upshaw and Nuttall produce big, bold sounds, which are often loud but rarely intense. That isn't really a problem, Kurtág isn't above using the shock factor so a bit of volume can help hammer his message home. And he's hardly a Romantic, so a little emotional distancing on the part of the players is no bad thing. There is plenty of musical variety in their performances, and Nuttall in particular performs the score (which he reads from a digital display – the Americans seem to be ahead of us in this long-overdue technology) with all the variety of timbre and articulation it needs.
If this production has anything to tell us about the Kafka-Fragments, perhaps it lies in the fact that Sellers' tangential relationship with Kurtág mirrors Kurtág's tangential relationship with Kafka. All three are real individuals whose work seems to demand autonomy. Bringing them together is going to produce fireworks, and at least one of them is going to come off the worse for it. Peter Sellers is clearly a man who likes challenges, and he certainly finds one in the Kafka-Fragments, a score actively opposed to the possibility of dramatic staging. But just because it is a challenge, that doesn't necessarily mean that it is worth doing.
Gavin Dixon

Monday, 1 November 2010

Crumb and Cashian at Kings Place 1 November 2010

Crumb, Cashian: CHROMA Ensemble, Hall Two, Kings Place, 1.11.10 (GDn)
George Crumb: Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale)
Philip Cashian: Aquila (World premiere)
George Crumb: Eleven Echoes of Autumn
Philip Cashian: Caprichos

Crumb and Cashian have little in common as composers, and programming their works together makes for pretty extreme contrasts. So extreme, in fact that the combination does little to elucidate either man's work. It does tell us a lot about the CHROMA Ensemble though. The two composers are clearly among their favourites, and both composers create music that plays to the ensemble's strengths. They are great at emphasising the drama in music that uses just a few gestures to create its effect. They are also good at finding all the subtle gradations between homogeneous textures and wildly divergent counterpoint. In general though, neither composer deals in subtleties, and the wild excesses of each – the amplified minutiae of Crumb and the extreme syncopations of Cashian's rhythms – were all presented here with confidence and precision.
George Crumb's 'Voice of the Whale' may be almost forty years old but it is still a radical work. When the performers walk on in masks, it is a startling gesture in itself. And all the gestures that follow, both musical and non-musical are in a similar vein. The instruments, flute, cello and piano, are amplified throughout, but there is no further electronic distortion. The work has a broad ecological theme and the composer's intention with both the masks and the microphones is to distance the performers from the audience, emphasising the inhuman dimensions of the natural phenomenon from which it takes inspiration.
'Eleven Echoes of Autumn' pre-dates 'Voice of the Whale' but uses many of the same ideas. The instruments are again amplified throughout, giving the concept of echoes a very literal dimension. There is plenty going on inside the lid of the piano in both the Crumb works, and the effect of these often very quiet effects, brushing or hitting the strings or the soundboard, more the justifies the amplification. The piece isn't quite in the same league as its successor, but it has plenty of merits of its own. The effect of the violinist playing a melody in artificial harmonics whilst simultaneously whistling it in unison is wonderful, as is the sound of the clarinet and alto flute playing loud glissandos into the case of the piano, then interacting with the reverberation from the strings.
Philip Cashian, in marked contrast to George Crumb, is a composer whose work is articulated primarily through rhythm. His writing for groups of instruments comes in two broad categories: textural diversity where each instrument is essentially playing a different kind of music, and rhythmic unison, where a single syncopated rhythm unites the group. And what syncopation! Offbeats are the rule rather than the exception. To keep the ensemble together one of the players (the clarinettist) is often required to beat time, revealing an unchanging 4/4 meter. But this is surely just for the convenience of the notation; there is nothing foursquare about the results.
Both Cashian works, 'Aquila' of which this was the première and 'Caprichos' were written for this ensemble, and no doubt with the strengths of the present players in mind. The fine bass clarinet playing of Stuart King is one resource of the group that the composer exploits to great effect. The agility of the bass clarinet in its lower register is a hallmark of both of these works, as is the ingenious combination of bass clarinet and cello. In 'Aquila' they play for a time in rhythmic unison but at the opposite ends of their ranges, the clarinet at the bottom and the cello up in the harmonics, an elegant and unusual combination.
Hall Two at Kings Place is essentially a multi-purpose studio space, and its acoustical properties are negligible compared to those of Hall One. That said, the amplified sounds of the Crumb works came over well in this environment, which was presumably designed with electrically amplified sounds in mind. The air conditioning makes a continuous, if very quiet, noise. That wouldn't be a problem in most music, but in 'Eleven Echoes', which often goes down to minuscule dynamics, it can be a distraction. The Cashian works survive in this environment simply by virtue of the proximity of the players to the audience, giving a sense of immediacy to his very direct musical gestures. 'Caprichos' is a great work to close a concert, a tour de force both in compositional and performance terms. The commission for 'Aquila' was no doubt a result of the success of this earlier composition, and Cashian has wisely chosen to combine his tried and tested syncopations with some new instrumental combinations. If it doesn't work quite as well, that says more about the musical proficiency of the former piece than of any deficiencies in the latter.
Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Music without Politics – A Myth Founded on Vested Interests

Once again classical music finds itself embroiled in a war, fortunately only of words, connected with the Israel/Palestine conflict. Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu has condemned plans by Cape Town Opera to visit Tel Aviv next month on the grounds that the plight of Palestinians today equates to that of blacks in apartheid-era South Africa, obliging the international community to impose similar sanctions.
The other side of the argument was represented in the press by Hanna Munitz, director of the Tel Aviv Opera, who will be hosting the Cape Town company. She was quoted as saying:"The agenda is culture and art, and definitely not politics. Both houses relate to culture as a bridge, the aim of which is to be above any political dispute."
The previous high profile intervention of the Middle East conflict in the smooth running of the classical music world came in March this year, when demonstrators disrupted a performance by the Jerusalem Quartet at Wigmore Hall in London. On that occasion too the press turned to the management to act as the voice of classical music reason. James Gilhooly, Director of the Wigmore, said that: "By disrupting performances, the protesters completely take away the whole meaning of an artistic event, which is something that transcends politics."
So what exactly is this nebulous hierarchical relationship between art and politics? The suggestion is that art has no political dimension, or rather that its functioning is unrelated to political activity.
Does anybody actually believe that? Clearly, arts administrators would have a much easier time of it if what they promoted was insulated from the outside world, with no social or political connotations. But sublimating those connotations through notions of 'transcendence' isn't going to make them go away.
And it is a myth that does the art itself a disservice. Art and music that consciously engages with political issues is a rarity these days, but it is important that audiences have the right to interpret all art and music as having a direct relevance to their social situation. Anything less and it becomes merely entertainment. The performers in the situations described above are in a catch 22 if it is their employers making these claims. So perhaps musicians should be grateful to Archbishop Tutu for highlighting the political dimension of their work. On the other hand, it is probably just as well that he is not doing so loudly from the auditorium while they are trying to get on with it.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Helmut Lachenmann Chamber Music Day QEH 23.10.10

Helmut Lachenmann Chamber Music Day: Arditti Quartet, Helmut Lachenmann (piano), Oliver Coates (cello), Clio Gould (violin), Sarah Leonard (soprano), Rolf Hind (piano), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 23.10.10 (GDn)

Helmut Lachenmann wants us to listen in a new way. What he means by that can be difficult to put into words, he'll use expressions like 'playing the piano rather than playing on the piano', which don't necessarily make things any clearer. Fortunately, his music – all his music in fact – makes the point explicitly, and with an immediacy that makes his alternative approach to sound seem almost intuitive.
One of the events of the Chamber Music Day was a discussion with the composer. At 75, he is of the immediate post-war generation of German composers, and like all of his contemporaries, he spent the early years of his career searching for ways to resurrect the German musical tradition from the apparent impasse it faced in the 1950s. Being a German composer, Lachenmann is an artist who deals with tradition and seems to continually reconcile what he does with what has gone before. However, that is something you'll only realise if you hear him talk; his music seems miraculously unencumbered by tradition.
It turns out that one Lachenmann's most significant early influences was John Cage. At the talk, Lachenmann mentioned 4'33" as a work in which the listener is obliged to listen differently, to explore new ideas of what music is. This is the deep level at which Lachenmann seeks to alter our perceptions, and any performance of his music takes us back to the basics: we have a concert hall, performers, instruments and an audience – that's all you can take for granted. If his works engage with musical tradition (and I still have my doubts), it is through the radical reinterpretation of the performance situation.
Lachenmann's project is surprisingly insular. At a time when composers around the world are increasingly obliged to take on cross cultural and multimedia influences, Lachenmann continues to explore a distinctively personal sound world. In practical terms, this means that performers have to submit wholly to his aesthetic. He regularly collaborates with performers, but judging by what he expects of them, this must surely be because musical notation is unable to express exactly what he needs them to do. Lachenmann is the godfather of extended performance techniques, and the production of almost every sound in his works is the result of an instrument being used in an unusual way.
Fortunately, the Arditti Quartet have the measure of this music. The expertise they brought to the first concert, spoke of many years of deep engagement with the composer's work. They take on the extended techniques as if they were second nature. To give an idea of the sort of thing we are talking about, the concert featured: the back of a violin being played with the bow, bowing the tail piece, the head, the pegs and the bridge of the cello, plucking violin strings with the tensioning nut of the bow...the list is seemingly endless. But the coherency of these performances lay in the fact that the performers didn't treat any of the techniques as if they were unusual, and for Lachenmann they are not, they are the basis of his aesthetic.
The two works in this first concert, the 1st and 3rd String Quartets were written in 1972 and 2001 respectively. The difference between them is remarkable. In the first, there are virtually no pitched sounds (in typically Cageian fashion, Lachenmann takes little interest in the distinction between sound and noise). He talks about 'perforated sounds', and the timbres produced by the various performing techniques could well be thought of as an array of different levels of perforation. In the 3rd Quartet, pitched sounds are the basis of most of the textures, and there are a surprising number of instances of notes being produced on the strings of the instruments with the hair of the bow. But the radicalism remains, as if Lachenmann has spent the intervening years claiming traditional timbres for his personal sound world. Consonances and chords appear, but even then, Lachenmann ensures we are listening to them differently, as if all their former meaning had been stripped away.
The evening concert began with the composer himself performing the piano suite 'Ein Kinderspiel'. These early pieces are a kind of manifesto, setting out his radical ideas in simple terms. So in one work he plays a chromatic scale from the top to the bottom of the piano. The reason? Well, Lachenmann is of the opinion that the banal in music equates to no music at all. So this chromatic scale is merely a medium. In the composer's words, it means that rather than playing a chromatic scale of the piano, he is playing the piano on a chromatic scale. There then followed two solo works, played by cellist Oliver Coates and violinist Clio Gould. Both handled the music well, and were able to make all of the unusual effects sound, but neither were quite up to the level of the Ardittis in terms of their fluency with Lachenmann's language.
The final work was a song cycle entitled 'Got Lost'. Soprano Sarah Leonard and pianist Rolf Hind are seasoned Lachenmann performers, and this was a very impressive performance. The composer spent many years incorporating vocal music and language into his work, a project that was initially focussed on his opera 'Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern' and later on a series of spin-off projects, of which this is one. Predictably, perhaps, we are in a world here of Cathy Berberian vocal effects, singing into the case of the piano, plucking the strings, striking the soundboard with a hammer. Personally, I find Lachenmann's innovations with string technique superior to his piano devices, although his most significant innovation with the instrument has been to treat the keyboard as a resonant body and explore the sounds that can be produced without actually striking the keys. It is an interesting piece, and the most recent of the works on the programme, demonstrating that even in his 70s, Lachenmann is as inquisitive and adventurous as ever in the continuing expansion of his distinctive and utterly original sound world.
Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

LPO Vänskä Szymczewska RFH 13.10.10 Review

Magnus Lindberg: Al Largo (UK premiere)
Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto
William Walton: Symphony no.1
Agata Szymczewska violin
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä conductor
Royal Festival Hall 13 October 2010
Magnus Lindberg used to say that he never wrote slow music. Clearly then, a work entitled 'Al Largo' marks something of a departure. For better or worse, it is certainly out of character. His work is always distinctive, and if you're familiar with his earlier works you'd certainly recognise him from this. But it is interesting to hear what happens to his music when he slows it down. Suddenly you realise just how Romantic it all is. He is a composer who works in gestures, in emotive devices that create a human level beneath the industrial/modernist surface. Take that surface away and you start hearing a lot of Strauss, Mahler even. It does seem like a regressive step, although Lindberg was never an aesthetic polemicist. You can't accuse him of hypocrisy, but I'm tempted to accuse him of selling out.
But tempo apart, all the usual Lindberg traits are there. Every single texture and line has an icy purity, a real focus and conviction that is all too rare in new music. And there are fast passages in this piece, each a welcome reminder of earlier times, that feel for multiple agogic levels with the fastest layer a sort of base unit for other, more complex rhythmic processes. His orchestration is as acute as ever too. This is a really tough score for the orchestra, but their efforts are well rewarded. In general though, the work is experimental at best, a promising indicator of wider artistic horizons ahead for its composer, but not a patch on his earlier music.
Potential is also the word that springs to mind when listening to the young violinist Agata Szymczewska. On the strength of this performance, I suspect she is going to be one of the great violinists of our times. She's not there yet though, not quite anyway. Her reading of the Mendelssohn was cautious and, dare I say it, naïve. That might be down to her age; she was born in 1985, meaning that many of the violinists playing this concerto on the London stage today have been been doing so since before she was born. We certainly get a new approach from her, and it is wonderful to hear a performance that is so unencumbered by performing tradition. She goes easy on the rubato, and tends to articulate the phrasing through subtle dynamic shifts rather than by emphasising cadences. Perhaps it is not naivety, perhaps it is sophistication, but I like the way she rescues this music from the worst Romantic excesses it is often subjected to; you could easily play Mendelssohn as if it were Wagner, but I suspect neither composer would thank you for it. Szymczewska is not quite as secure with her articulation as she needs to be, especially with such a well known work. Paradoxically, her tuning in the fast passage work was better than in the slow sections. Like Lindberg, her musical home is clearly the presto.
It is a real joy to watch Osmo Vänskä work. He has a small, spindly frame, and by eschewing tails in favour of a simple dinner jacket he just looks like just another member of the orchestra. But the energy that he transmits from the podium is phenomenal, and he has a seemingly inexhaustible repertoire of gestures and physical expressions, most of which involve his whole body.
He is just the man for Walton 1, a work where energy and drive are paramount. There are subtleties to the work that he overlooks, especially in the various ways that phrases join or are separated by rits and caesuras. But his approach works just as well and it involves pushing through the music and relying on the sheer momentum that the orchestra can offer. A top notch orchestra is clearly an indispensable aspect of this sort of approach, and it is clear that this is a man who has carved a distinctive interpretive niche by only working with the best. The strings and brass really gave it their all, and special mention should go to Lee Tsarmaklis, whose round yet penetrating power was the decisive factor in the success of many of the climaxes. Great playing from the lower strings too, all the strings actually, I don't think I've ever heard the ostinatos of the first movement or the fugue theme of the last punched out with such clarity. The slow movement was a little fast I thought, resulting in some slightly congested woodwind solos. But then everything in the symphony was fast, and it always seemed to work out in the end. In this work, Walton is always working towards a climax, but it is never the sort of climax you are expecting and it usually comes before you are expecting it. That is why Osmo Vänskä is the ideal conductor. He knows how to pull surprises out of his hat, and he knows how to make well-known music sound fresh and new just through microscopic changes in the placement of chords. Walton thrives on that stuff, and Osmo Vänskä clearly does too.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Review: LSO Barbican Hall 12 October 2010 Siem, Dvořák, Janáček

Sasha Siem: Trickster
Dvořák: Violin Concerto
Janáček: Glagolitic Mass

Colin Davis conductor
Michael Francis conductor
Anne-Sophie Mutter violin
Krassimira Stoyanova soprano
Anna Stephany mezzo
Simon O'Neill tenor
Martin Snell bass
Catherine Edwards organ
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra

How do you make meaningful contact between new music and non-specialist classical audiences? The LSO/UBS Soundscapes commissioning programme is based on the principle that there is a young generation of composers out there who won't see it as a compromise to their artistic integrity to go against the Modernist rhetoric of their teachers and produce something palatable. And true enough, there are a good number of young composers who thrive in this sort of situation, but while exposure is always good, I'm not sure they are being put in the best light. The commission stipulates a limit of five minutes, ensuring that the work will be dwarfed by what follows. The première is also insulated by the fact that it is led by a different conductor, as if to ensure that the programme proper is not tainted by the association of new music.
In the face of all these constraints, both practical and artistic, Sasha Siem has made the most of the opportunity offered by the commission. Her work 'Trickster' makes a virtue of its short span, it is punchy and full of surprises, but not over ambitious or straining against the 'audience friendly' requirements. In fairness, the musical material is slight, and there is often a sense that the continual repetition of motifs is only to fill the time rather than to further any minimalist agenda. But what it lacks in thematic ingenuity it makes up for in drama and in subtlety of orchestration. She likes the device of interrupting pianissimo chords with full orchestral tuttis and visa versa. She is also adept at creating large scale orchestral textures in which every player is doing something both unique and essential. There seemed to be everything but the kitchen sink in the percussion section, despite the fact she was only writing for two players. In sum, a successful fulfilment of a commission with questionable aims, and a frustrating suggestion that Siem has much more to say but was being denied the chance.
It was good to see Michael Francis on the podium for this work. London audiences have few chances to hear the work of the generation of talented British conductors who are now in their 30s because, surprise surprise, Germany and America offer them the chances that they don't find here. Francis is up there with the best of them, and this score really gave him a chance to shine. Every bar seemed to be in a different asymmetrical metre, and he took it all in his stride.
Dvorak's Violin Concerto, in my opinion, fully deserves its obscurity. The themes are hackneyed, the orchestration is serviceable at best, and the structure manages to be both morbidly formulaic and waywardly incoherent. Anne-Sophie Mutter evidently disagrees, and made a passionate argument for the work's virtues with this performance. There is a lot of Bohemian folk-fiddling in her playing, more I suspect than the composer would have sanctioned. She also made a big thing of the abrupt gear changes, suddenly launching into a new theme at an unexpectedly fast (and occasionally slow) tempo. I don't find her tone particularly elegant, but the grainy, guttural sounds of her lower register fits well into the rustic feel of her performance. She also has an impressive knack of creating a wide, embracing tone at the lowest end of the dynamic spectrum. That is a real asset in the slow movement, and is also a big help in combating the sullen acoustic of the Barbican Hall.
Speaking of which, the idea of performing the Glagolitic Mass here seems counter-intuitive to say the least. Does the hall have space for a choir? No. An organ? Nope. A reverberant acoustic suitable for a mass setting? Forget it. And yet, the performance of the Mass in the second half was a real triumph, and to a certain extent that was thanks to the hall rather than despite it. Having the huge forces of the orchestra and the choir in such close proximity, both to themselves and to the audience, seemed to intensify the experience. Many of the movements end on a climax that is suddenly cut short. But by not having to wait for the decay, the continuity with the following movement was all the stronger. And there was nothing wrong with the electronic organ; it had all the power you could want, and Catherine Edwards rendition of the solo movement came close to upstaging the entire choir and orchestra.
But everybody excelled in this performance. The orchestra performed with the kind of searing intensity they usually reserve for Gergiev. The choir coped well with the arcane language, and managed to hold their tuning even in the loudest passages. The four soloists also proved equal to the task. Simon O'Neill again demonstrated why he is becoming the tenor of choice for all the supercharged roles. He was always in tune, with a round yet penetrating tone, and most importantly, he was always audible, even when the full orchestra and choir where going full whack.
There is no sign of Colin Davis letting up I'm pleased to say. It isn't an easy piece to conduct, the Glagolitic Mass. The frequent changes of tempo and mood need somebody with years of experience in the opera pit. And the sustained intensity of the work needs energy and stamina reserves a conductor half his age would struggle to muster. But he continues to produce wonders with the LSO. Long may he continue.
Gavin Dixon

Monday, 27 September 2010

Tristan and Isolde: Philharmonia, Esa-Pekka Salonen

Wagner: Tristan and Isolde (concert performance) Soloists, Philharmonia Orchestra and Voices, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London 26.09.2010

Gary Lehman Tristan
Violeta Urmana Isolde
Anne-Sofie von Otter Brangäne
Matthew Best King Marke
Jukka Rasilainen Kurwenal
Stephen Gadd Melot
Joshua Ellicott Shepherd/Sailor
Darren Jeffery Helmsman

Bill Viola visual artist
Peter Sellars artistic collaborator

Multimedia additions have been the selling point of the Philharmonia's Tristan project, but innovative as they are, the most insightful contribution here is from conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. He's not known as a Wagnerian, nor do his musical inclinations suggest a natural sympathy with the composer. The success of the result was, I think, the result of a certain friction between Salonen and Wagner. It meant that the musical focus of the work shifted, and the dramatic significance of the orchestra was cast in a new light.
Typically for Salonen, the sheer physical energy from the podium maintained the momentum throughout the work. At the opening of the prelude, he beat the six quavers of each bar with heavy, deliberate strokes. He then continued to conduct the whole of the prelude like this, never tempted to fall back into a relaxed two in a bar. The result was sustained dramatic intensity from the orchestra, even through the extended passages of mid-range dynamics from the strings and woodwind. Salonen's stock in trade is the evenly paced crescendo leading to intense and sustained climax. Wagner provides many such opportunities, but unfortunately most of them are in his other operas. Musically, the defining moment of this performance was the conclusion of the first act. The ship, upon which the action has so far taken place, reaches the coast of Cornwall and is greeted by the retinue of King Marke, all of whom – the trumpeters and the choir of guards – were distributed around the auditorium. It was a classic Salonen moment, dramatic, intense and searing.
In comparison to this, most of the rest of the score was relatively understated, and while Salonen ensured that the balance and ensemble were always finely measured, he was happy for the lead singers to dictate the mood. This was something of a relief, as watching his intensely expressed beat in the prelude, it seemed as if he was planning to control the entire opera with a Solti-esque iron grip.
Salonen's faith in his singers is well founded. The cast for this production is impressively, and almost uniformly, strong. However, one or two singers really do stand out. First and foremost is Gary Lehman, who is that rarest of opera singers, a Wagnerian heldentenor who is actually up to the job. His voice isn't the strongest I've heard, but it has enough power to carry over Salonen's inflated orchestral textures. He has a pure sound in the upper register and an almost baritone richness to the lower end. Both he and Violeta Urmana, his Isolde for the evening, can also be heard in Gergiev's new Parsifal recording. Both shine in Tristan as well as they do in Parsifal, and to hear them together live is a real treat.
The support cast contains some top flight Wagnerians too. Urmana is a great Isolde, but there were one or two occasions when the more experienced and more timbrally distinctive Anne Sofie von Otter came close to upstaging her as Brangäne. Matthew Best has the ideal presence of tone, not to mention stamina in Act 2, for King Marke. He too is an ideal singer for this project, in that there is never any danger of his being overpowered by the on-stage orchestra.
The Philharmonia were on their usual top form. As ever under Salonen, they were regularly taken outside their comfort zone in terms of dynamics and always coped well. The lower strings are a real strength of this orchestra and get many chances to shine in Tristan, the preludes to the Acts 1 and 3 spring to mind. Fabulous cor anglais playing from Jill Crowther. The instrument is used in so many contexts that it could almost be considered one of the cast, and its sheer variety of timbres really aided the dramatic credibility.
Which brings us to the video instillation. I notice that the term 'semi-staged' was not used in any of the publicity material, which is probably just as well, because it was about a quarter staged at most. In some of the scenes, the singers were distributed around the auditorium, but in general it was as if the live action had been deliberately played down in order not to distract from the video projections. Bill Viola has taken two basic approaches to the work, an almost prosaic literalism and a more abstract symbolism. With four hours or so of music, there is plenty of time for both, but their combination can lead to disorientation and incoherency. Each of the first two acts opens at the literal end of the scale, the first with images of the sea, the second with night time images of a forest. And at the end of act 1, when the ship reaches the coast, that is also literally depicted, although the North coast of Cornwall looks suspiciously like the South coast of California. For the abstract episodes, he takes a few visual metaphors that he then presents in a variety of contexts. Love/love potion/love magic are all represented by water, a visual device that flows seamlessly from the maritime imagery of the opening. Passion and lust are represented by fire and also by...well, gratuitous nudity. That's not a complaint, although it does mean that a number of the surtitles go unread. In general, the pace of the imagery is deliberately slow, figures moving in slow motion interspersed with slowly transforming abstract images. This has the practical benefit of filling the time, but also means that the video and the live action, such as it is, move at different speeds. It is as if the singers are playing out Wagner's skeletal narrative, while the video addresses the underlying and timeless philosophical issues.
Clever then, but also waywardly incoherent, and occasionally struggling for ideas. The video is at its best in the final scene (I won't give away the details) and musically these last 20 minutes were also exceptional. Urmana saved something in reserve for the closing scene, and was brilliantly supported by Salonen, who drew a smouldering intensity from the orchestra. Impressive stamina all round, especially considering that most of the performers are not generally known for their Wagner. The video is likely to remain controversial, but I suspect that acclaim for the musical side of Salonen's Tristan project will be universal.
Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 19 September 2010

4'33" – Please Take it Seriously

I've been following with interest the facebook campaign "JOHN CAGE'S 4'33'' FOR CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE 2010". On some levels, it is a great idea, although I struggle to understand why so many music enthusiasts care about the domination of the pop charts by a TV talent show.

4'33" would seem to be the ideal vehicle for the protest, after last year's successful campaign to topple the latest X Factor winner and replace them with 'Killing in the Name', they no longer need to scream 'Fuck you I won't do what you tell me' at Simon Cowell. This more demure protest sends the same message, but with a menacing veneer of passive aggression.

Successful or not, the campaign is certainty going to bring Cage's masterpiece under the spotlight, but how is the work itself going to fare? If you go to the campaign facebook page and look at the responses from group members to the various announcements, you'll find a lot of this sort of thing:

     I downloaded it accidentally once. Well, it was 4'32" of silence, but what's one second? 

     I can't hear anything.. is this some kind of joke? 

     makes an excellent ring-tone too...

But 4'33" is not silent. Cage's score stipulates that the performers refrain from making any deliberate noises, but those aren't the sort of noises he is interested in. Ambient sound is part of the work, as are the noises our circulation and nervous systems make, and even the sounds that we imagine when listen intently in a concert hall setting.

The sheer quantity of cultural context of the work is astonishing, and has recently become the subject of an entire book by Kyle Gann, appropriately entitled 'No Such Thing as Silence'. The 'blank' canvases of Robert Rauschenberg are an important precedent, while the Zen Buddhism that Cage was studying at the time even suggests a deep spiritual dimension to the work. And the significance of 4'33" on later music demonstrates its important cultural status. According to Paul Hegarty, the whole discipline of noise music, which admittedly isn't to everybody's taste, but which has pretty much defined the cutting edge of avant-garde electronica for decades, actually began with 4'33". 

Sure, John Cage was a bit of a joker, but he was making a serious point. Deadpan humour is an important part of the work, and most performances treat it as a send-up of the conventions of the recital hall. But there is much more to it than that. Fortunately, at least some of the facebookers get it, as the following interchange on the message boards demonstrates:

     Anyone ever read the emperor's new clothes?

     Have you ever read John Cage's book "Silence"? 

One last thought: when you type "JOHN CAGE'S 4'33'' FOR CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE 2010" into Google, it responds: "Did you mean JOHNNY CAGE'S 4'33'' FOR CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE 2010" What's that all about?

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Review of Krauss Ring Cycle

Nice to see a review of the Krauss Ring cycle in the Express. Shame it is only 70 words long (that's 5 words per disc) and seems to be of a completely different recording.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Arvo Pärt vs. Vladimir Putin

 Khodorkovsky's mother campaigns for his release ahead of the Proms performance of  Arvo Pärt's 4th Symphony

What is Arvo Pärt playing at with his recent dedications? Soon after the death of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006, the composer made an announcement that all of the following season's performances of his work were to be dedicated to her. Very noble, you might think, but then in January 2009 a more political motivation emerged when he dedicated his 4th Symphony to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian oligarch, who fell foul of the Putin administration and has been in prison in Siberia since 2003. He's really pressing the point, even inviting Khodorkovsky's mother to the British première of the work, to campaign for his release before the Russian press on the steps of the Albert Hall.

So what is in it for Arvo Pärt? He has certainly had his share of Russian oppression, his previous symphony, the 3rd of 1971 the subject of particularly focussed Soviet censure. But his emigration/defection to the West was in 1980, long before anybody involved in the current Russian administration was monitoring cultural activities in Estonia. 

Or is there something from Putin's KGB past that I don't know about, something that Arvo Pärt is putting to rights in his own way? Whatever the motivations for Pärt's recent dedications, one thing is for sure, he's off Gergiev's Christmas card list.

Read a review of the new ECM recording of Pärt's 4th Symphony here

Friday, 20 August 2010

At last - Something from Reger that might interest the Brits

I've found an unlikely ally in my ongoing mission to convert the British to Reger. Janet Reger, it seems, was a fashion designer based in East London. She died in 2005, but her reputation for opulent lingerie designs lives on. Here we see an underwear set comprising 'a padded bra and French knickers, trimmed with pin-tucks and lace'. I can imagine Max getting quite hot under the collar, then calming his nerves with a large beer.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Violin muting: a solemn cabalistic rite?

I've just been listening to a recording of Gavin Bryars' Violin Concerto, which is subtitled "The Bulls of Bashan" (read my review here). In the liner, the composer explains how he came by the title. Much of the work involves the string section of the orchestra moving between muted and unmuted playing. But, Gavin Bryars points out, this is only possible thanks to modern mute technology. Things were very different in 1914 when Cecil Forsythe wrote his famous orchestration treatise. In those days, your violin mute lived in your waistcoat pocket and caused no little disruption when it made an appearance:

"Unhappily the mutes remain something of a problem on the mechanical side of concert-room organisation. When they are required the noise and fuss is most distressing, and, as these moments always occur when a pp is approaching, the musical attention of the audience is completely distracted. About fifty or sixty players all rattle their bows down on their desks in order to be free to search their waistcoat pockets. When the mutes have been dragged out they are fitted to the bridges with a studied and elaborate caution which may be necessary to preserve the bridges from injury, but which gives an impression that the players are taking part in a solemn cabalistic rite. And all this occurs in 1914 when inventors are as thick as bulls in Bashan."

Sunday, 25 July 2010

How to improve the Albert Hall acoustic

Something needs to be done about the sound in the Albert Hall, but what? A recent suggestion by Mathew Tucker is to give up on the place and move the Proms to the Southbank Centre. Given the stifling weight of tradition associated with the festival, I suspect it is going to take more than acoustic concerns for that to happen. So perhaps a more practical goal could be to radically improve the sound at the RAH, and here is my suggestion: a much lower ceiling. 

Various things have been tried up there in the past – lining the dome, suspending a velarium, the mushrooms. Each has had a perceptible but limited effect. To be effective, an acoustic ceiling would need to be much lower, below the gallery (what is the gallery for?), and even below the upper circle, no loss considering that the sound up there is worse than useless anyway. All the boxes would still be in use, so corporate hospitality and aristocratic patronage would not be affected. It could even be an adjustable height ceiling like at Symphony Hall in Birmingham. Then it could be raised if the BBC insisted on filling the upper circle with flag-waiving goons for the last night.

It is not a perfect solution, the hall would still be too wide as much as anything else, but it's an idea. And even if it doesn't happen, something has to be done about the RAH acoustic. And to be effective it is going to have to be something invasive that drastically reduces its capacity.
A sketch of the velarium installed at the Albert Hall in 1941, the first year the Proms were held at the venue.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Composer deaths quiz

Match the composer to the unfortunate circumstances of their demise (alleged or real). Many thanks to 'Nicedoc' at Yahoo Answers for this one.

1. Robert Schumann
2. Jean-Baptiste Lully
3. Charles-Valentin Alkan
4. Alban Berg
5. Peter Tchaikovsky
6. Henry Purcell
7. Maurice Ravel
8. Ernest Chausson

a. Died when a bookcase fell on him
b. Died by riding his bicycle into a wall
c. Died when he smashed his foot with a pole while keeping rhythm and it got infected.
d. Died from cholera after drinking unboiled water.
e. Died after getting sick in the cold after being locked out by his wife
f. Died from mercury poisioning as a complication of syphilis treatment
g. Died from complications from an insect bite
h. Died from complications after being whacked in the head while in a taxi

Thursday, 10 June 2010

What’s wrong with Reger

Henry Wood was an adventurous conductor, and regularly risked the disapproval of the public by presenting them with works by composers they might not like: Wagner, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and – horror of horrors – Max Reger!

The Proms this year are staging an interesting event, a recreation of the 1910 Last Night. A good number of Wood’s ‘novelties’ are on the programme, Ambroise Thomas, German, Forster, in fact, there is only one deviation from the original schedule. And guess who’s been given the boot – Reger of course. The (very fine) Violin and Piano Suite Op.103a is making way for the premiere of a cello concerto reconstructed by David Matthews from fragments by Vaughan Williams.

The Matthews/VW concerto will, no doubt, be fascinating, but what is it about Reger that UK audiences find so unpalatable? He is not at the peak of fashionability in Germany either, but at least they maintain a healthy respect for his industry, his forward-looking harmonies and his Bachian contrapuntal ingenuity.

Reger died in 1916, so perhaps his name became associated with the anti-German feeling of the First World War. What else could it be? He was a Brahms disciple, and it took many in the UK a long time to come to terms with Brahms (GBS never did).
Or perhaps the problem lies with his organ music. A large slice of Britain’s professional musician demographic came through the cathedral choir route, and so were probably exposed to more organ music than is healthy for anybody. Reger is popular with organists, at least more so than with other musicians, but many of his organ works or a bit on the ingestible side. I’m a big fan of Reger, but even I would concede that a little of his organ music goes a long way, which is unfortunate, as much of it is very long indeed.

But Henry Wood was quite right to concentrate on the chamber music. There is some magnificent music here, the solo works for violin and cello are excellent, many of them, I’d also highly recommend the Piano Quartet op.133 and the two Piano Trios opp. 2 and 102.

So here’s to the rehabilitation of Max Reger, a fitting homage indeed to the forward thinking and always constructively controversial Sir Henry Wood!

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Heinrich Schutz by Rembrandt van Rijn

Did you know that Rembrandt painted Schutz? It was news to me. The portrait, from 1633, is now in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
Actually, it is a bit of a tease this one. Schutz scholars say the identity of the sitter is far from certain, which is quite frustrating, because it really, really looks like him!

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Classical CD Roundup

I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last couple of weeks reviewing recently released CDs. Most of the discs that reach me are worth a listen, a few are exceptional, and there are always a few duds.

So, without further ado, here is my brief rundown, in roughly ascending order of recommendation, of what’s hot and what’s not on the current classical CD market (click the cover illustrations for full reviews):

A curious pairing, the very senior Robert Mann with the very junior Stephen Hough. Recorded in the mid-80s, and I have to say, probably better left gathering dust in the archives. Violin tuning is poor, balance is poor, and sound quality is dreadful. Avoid.

Middle of the road Tchaikovsky. Little energy or passion. Indistinct sound – despite the SACD.

Everyone else seems to love this CD of little known Palestrina. Personally I’d like to hear much more precision in the choral singing.

Good sound, good orchestra. All a bit too civilised though.

A brave effort by the Choir of Kings College, London to broaden the renaissance repertoire. It’s well sung, but it can get a bit monotonous.

A surprisingly proficient offering from down under. Sebastian Lang-Lessing is determined to get high octane performances out of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. They don’t always manage to keep up, but when they do the performances are very fine.

All good recordings, many of which you have probably heard before. A seemingly random mix of performances new and old from the EMI archives.

Yeon-Hee Kwak is an oboist to watch out for. Mind, another two discs like this and she will have completely exhausted the repertoire. Innovative six channel surround mix is included, although what use that is for unaccompanied oboe music is beyond me.

A French conductor let loose on Bruckner with a German orchestra, whatever next? Cambreling retains tight control throughout, which is great in the climaxes, but he looses some magic in the quieter sections.

An anniversary release from the Tallis Scholars, who again demonstrate their mastery of the renaissance repertoire.

Not recent releases, these, but still worth looking out for. Somewhere between Brahms and Schoenberg, with the skill of the former and neurosis of the latter.

DG usually only promote geriatric figures when it comes to the piano. Alice Sara Ott delivers a performance of Liszt that fully justifies thier change of heart: passionate, intense, yet always precise and focussed. Excellent.

This is how I like to hear Palestrina. A small, professional choir, singing with utmost accuracy and recorded in vibrant SACD. Sung in a lower pitch than usual (for reasons that the liner explains in detail) but without any loss of brilliance.

If you know the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt Bach cantata cycle, you’ll know what to expect. The difference here is the use of a mixed choir (rather than boy’s voices), world-class soloists, the Musikverein acoustic, and recording technology that is 25 years younger. He’s still going strong at 80.

Very Russian Bach – firm touch and an architectural approach to the form of every movement. Like Glenn Gould, but without the angst.

Rattle, Vienna Philharmonic, Beethoven 9 – expectations run high, and are not disappointed. Bit slow in the Adagio, perhaps, but otherwise an exemplary performance.

So there you have it. And if you still have some cash burning a hole in your pocket after those purchases, you could do far worse than the new Lohengrin from Semyon Bychkov. There’s not a weak link in the cast, the conducting is electric, and the SACD sound is demonstration quality. Buy it.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Elgar and the BNP

Watching the recent election broadcast from the British National Party, it is clear that they have constructed an iconography of Britishness around the heroic achievements of just two men: Churchill and Elgar.

The basic format is narration to camera interspersed with wartime footage, and Nimrod from the Enigma Variations playing quietly under both. Of course, it’s synched so that the climax four bars from the end corresponds with their main slogan, the not particularly inspiring ‘Get your own back – VOTE BNP!’ (Sorry, I’m not going to link to the video, but you can find it online if you really want to.)

My first reaction was irritation at the co-option of Elgar’s music. It is a staple of the advertising industry, of course, and being out of copyright it is longer under anybody’s protection. I got to wondering which recording they used and how the rights were negotiated. From the sound quality, I would say it is quite old, but certainly not old enough to be out of public domain.

What is the party trying to say through the use of Nimrod? I suspect that they are relying on the fact that enough voters are sufficiently musically literate to know that it was composed by the same hand as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. So, Elgar without the march rhythm equates to benign nationalism, and equates nicely with another (slightly desperate) slogan in the broadcast ‘We don’t hate anyone.’

What would Elgar have thought? In fairness, I suspect that there is an element of the BNP’s patriotic message that he may have sympathised with. However, I can’t help the feeling that linking his music with WW2 imagery is wholly inappropriate. He was famously indifferent to the British involvement in the First World War, saying that his only sympathy was with the horses caught up in the conflict.

And then there is ‘Nimrod’ himself, the composer’s close friend August Jaeger, an employee at Novello. Jaeger was born in Düsseldorf, and the Nimrod variation was inspired by a conversation with him on a very Teutonic subject, the music of Beethoven. Jaeger was also well known at the time as an advocate of the black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. I wonder what Nick Griffin would make of that.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Interview with Alessandro Corbelli

I was at Covent Garden again this week, this time to interview Alessandro Corbelli, an undisputed master of opera buffa and regular guest at the Royal Opera. He is currently appearing in Il Turco in Italia and will be staying on for the revival of La Fille du Régiment. Then in the autumn he's back for a new production of Adriana Lecouvreur. So there was much to discuss! Read the interview at: http://www.gavindixon.info/Interview_with_Alessandro_Corbelli.htm

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Interview with Christopher Maltman

I was at the Royal Opera House earlier on this week to interview Christopher Maltman (sorry about the photograph Christopher). We were talking about his latest role, the Forester in The Cunning Little Vixen. Plenty of musical challenges there that you won’t find in Mozart! It’s his first Janacek, but it sounds like ideal casting, a part that requires both convincing acting and a strong baritone voice. The first night is on Friday (19th March), and you can read the interview at: http://www.gavindixon.info/Interview_with_Christopher_Maltman.htm

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Tamerlano at Covent Garden

An interesting evening at the Royal Opera House last night. They were putting on Tamerlano as a vehicle for Plácido Domingo, but he'd pulled out. The rest of the cast managed OK without him, although the big names - Christine Schäfer, Christianne Stotijn - were comprehensively upstaged by singers in the minor roles - Renata Pokupić and Vito Priante. Read the full review at http://www.gavindixon.info/15.3.10_Tamerlano_ROH.htm