Thursday, 6 December 2012

Spira mirabilis, Kate Royal, QEH 5 Dec 12

Schubert: Spira Mirabilis, Kate Royal, Malcolm Martineau, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 5.12.12
Schubert: Octet, An Silvia D891,
Romance in F minor (Der Vollmond strahlt auf) from Rosamunde, Abendstern D806, An die Musik D547, Rastlose Liebe D138, Nachtviolen D752, An die Nachtigall (Er liegt und schlaeft) D497, Heimliches Lieben D922, Suleika 1 (Was bedeutet die Bewegung?) D720,  Suleika 2 (Ach um deine feuchten Schwingen) D717

What to do with the Schubert Octet? It’s too long to start a concert, but it doesn’t really have the drama to conclude one. The SBC came up with an ingenious solution this evening, coupling the Octet with a mini-recital of Lieder. The result was a programme that was both balanced and varied, and one that, despite Schubert’s best efforts, didn’t go on all night.
Spira Mirabilis is a young chamber music collective that is rapidly gaining an enviable reputation. It is based in Italy and claims to take players from around the world, although almost all the names on this evening’s programme looked Italian to me. The group’s approach to Schubert is youthful in all the best senses: energetic, direct and always revelling in the continuous melodic lines that keep his music afloat. The music was elegantly phrased, shaped with subtle dynamic swells and dips, and the unique character of each movement was clearly delineated from the very first bar.
Much of the playing was very quiet, suggesting that the players are used to an acoustic environment that is more giving than the drab sound of the QEH. As a result, some of the detail in these quieter passages was lost. The acoustic may also have contributed to some balance problems, and particularly to the top-heavy sound throughout the Octet. This projected the first violin and clarinet into positions of even greater prominence than Schubert’s score suggests, regularly inviting direct comparisons between the two players. That contest was definitely won by the clarinettist, Miriam Caldarini, a player with an attractive, warm tone, narrower than some, but still an excellent vehicle for Schubert’s melodies and counterpoints.
What a joy it is to hear Kate Royal sing Schubert. Her performance this evening was emotionally charged but never extreme. She is always intensely musical, but the words always come first, and she is prepared to bring her tone down to almost a speaking voice when the texts require it. The short recital that made up this evening’s second half included a bit of everything. Beginning with An Silvia is a traditional gambit, but it does bring premonitions of a greatest hits programme to follow. Fortunately, the selections soon moved into less familiar territory.
I remember Royal having a rounder voice in years gone by, but her tone was much narrower this evening, occasionally slightly nasal, but usually powered by a warm vibrato from the very back of the throat. One of her most impressive devices is a pianissimo float up into the highest register, then back down again as if nothing has happened. She is also good at ending lines decisively and with full tonal support, although this occasionally contrasts a lack of stability at the start of phrases.
One last word should go to accompanist Malcolm Martinaeu. His name precedes him, and he needs no further praise from me. Even so, it is fascinating to watch him work. The way that he can draw all the colours from the piano that we might expect from a concerto soloist, yet without ever raising significantly about mezzo forte. And when Schubert gives him a melody, usually as an introduction or coda, he plays it musically, but never so musically as to upstage the singer. The last song on the programme Leid der Delphine is really tricky for the pianist. The singer is invited to add all sorts of rubato, and the accompanist has to follow while also dealing with a range of complex figurations of his own. It almost fell apart once or twice, but Martineau was never going to let that happen. When Royal moved out of synch with the right hand running figurations, he simply delayed the left hand responses to meet her speed, yet without ever losing the pulse. He is a performer of intense musicality, and all the more impressive for never drawing attention to himself or his work. What a pro!

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Wagner Recordings: Are they all about the singing?

(image: Victor Juhasz)

There’s no such thing as a perfect Wagner recording. Either the conductor doesn’t know what he/she is doing, or the orchestra sound like they are sight reading, or (most commonly) there are singers in the cast who really shouldn’t be there. To find an exception to this rule, you have to go back to at least the early 1960s, at which point inferior audio becomes an issue. Listeners and critics have got to accept compromises somewhere, but the Gesamtkunstwerk doesn’t allow us to easily categorise even purely musical criteria into hierarchies of importance. 

Earlier this week, I was reviewing the new Götterdämmerung from Frankfurt, conducted by Sebastian Weigle. As chance would have it, the following day I edited for a journal a review from another critic of the same recording. He and I were in surprising agreement about the specifics: that the conducting and the sound engineering are excellent, that recording from staged performances aides the music’s drama, and, most significantly, that the lead singers, and Lance Ryan as Siegfried in particular, don’t give the best performances you’ll find on record.

So how, then, could our conclusions have differed so wildly? My review concludes with an enthusiastic recommendation, while his tells readers to steer well clear. Regarding Ryan’s singing, he even goes as far as to say “Where was the person with judgment and musical sensibilities, and the authority, to say “no – we cannot release this!”?”

To my ears, it would have been a great pity if that had happened, as I consider Weigle to be one of the greatest Wagner interpreters working today, and the insights he brings to this Götterdämmerung are all too rare among recent recordings. But for my fellow reviewer, and apparently for many, even most, other listeners, the flaws in the singing completely over-ride these qualities. 

I’ve often heard it said that there are two kinds of opera fans, those who are in it for the theatre, and those who are in it for the music. I’m certainly in the second category here, and I might even use flaws in Wagner’s concept of the music drama to justify my position. Wagner’s mature operas have a distinctly symphonic quality, and while this is intended to serve the higher ideas expressed through the multi-disciplinary whole, the sheer success of his greatest music as pure music deserves to be appreciated too. That dimension is emphasised by an audio recording, which focuses the attention squarely on the pit, with the vocal soloists dominating, but never leading, the orchestral performance. 

From that point of view, Weigle’s Götterdämmerung is a triumph. Not only does he present a musically convincing reading, but he also communicates it well to both the orchestra and the singers. He gives the singers plenty of space, or perhaps he just gives them plenty of rope to hang themselves, but there is never any sense that he is neglecting his responsibilities to the vocalists.

My colleague’s review advises listeners to avoid this recording and to seek out instead those by Solti, Böhm, Levine and Barenboim. I’d certainly agree that all four of those conductors have better singers to work with, but I’d also suggest that all four Ring cycles are elevated above their station by critics who prioritise the singing above all else. In comparison to Wiegle, those four conductors seem like control freaks, especially Solti, whose cycle remains the top choice for many, even those who don’t like the way he conducts it.

There are no easy solutions here, but Wagner does offer one possible way out of the impasse, via Das Rheingold. That’s the one opera in the cycle that doesn’t rely on a handful of superhuman singers in the lead roles. It’s much more of an ensemble piece, allowing a skilled conductor with an enthusiastic and well-integrated company to shine, even if they can’t afford the big names. And that’s exactly what we find with Wiegle’s Rheingold, which really is a triumph whichever way you look at it. So perhaps in future I’ll have to tone down my praise for Götterdämmerung recordings that have duff Siegfrieds, on the grounds that that really is a game changer for many listeners. When in that situation the answer is clearly to turn back to the first opera in the cycle. That way we’re much more likely to agree about the qualities, or otherwise, of conductor, orchestra and chorus, who between them rarely get the column inches they deserve in Wagner reviews.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Last Night of the Proms Review

Jiří Bělohlávek conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms (BBC/Chris Christodoulou)

 You get two concerts in one at the Last Night of the Proms. There are two overtures, two soloists, and enough endings to draw a line under even a concert season of this magnitude. The competing demands on the programme can lead to the impression that it has been drawn up by committee, and given the length of the evening, there were a handful of works we may have been better off without. The prommers didn't see it that way of course, and the audience's enthusiasm was certainly infectious, even if it did lead to applause at the end of, and sometimes during, individual movements.
The evening opened with sparks, a new commission from Mark Simpson. Perhaps the BBC had asked him for something like Stravinsky's Fireworks, a short, fizzing opener filled with innovative orchestral effects. As the more modest title suggests, the piece didn't quite ignite in the way that Stravinsky's so convincingly does, but it certainly got the concert going and demonstrated some impressive orchestration skills on the part of this young composer.
The first half lost its direction after that. There was a bit of everything in there, but the only truly memorable parts were the contributions from the fine soloists. Second on the programme was Suk's choral Towards a New Life. The piece has an Olympic connection, which is one justification for its performance. In fact, it is quite a Last-Night-of-the-Proms piece, a kind of Czech Land of Hope and Glory, although with a big tune that is closer to Crown Imperial.
Fun and upbeat music from Suk was contrasted on both counts by the Delius that followed. Songs of Farewell is as stodgy and opaque as anything Delius wrote. It is his anniversary year, so a presence of some sort on the Last Night programme is perhaps justified, but twenty minutes of this tested the patience of even the keenest of us. Good singing from the BBC Symphony Chorus though in both works. No BBC Singers this year – a budgetary constraint perhaps? - but their amateur colleagues proved more than capable of the task in hand.
Nicola Benedetti's performance of the Bruch First Concerto was the high point of the first half. Her complex but light tone had no difficulty in filling the hall, and the intimacy she can invoke, even here, provided the ideal balance to the pomp and grandeur of what was to follow. Joseph Calleja was on top form too. He delivered a series of mostly Italian arias in full Mario Lanza mode. But he is a singer with tons of personality, so there was never any danger this sounding like imitation. Why did he end the first half with “Nessun Dorma”? To celebrate the spectacular success of Britain's bid for the 2018 World Cup?
Everything changed after the interval, and for the better. The BBC SO gave performances in the first half that were no more than serviceable, though it is hard for an orchestra to shine in a programme that includes a long list of bleeding-chunk arias and twenty minutes of soupy Delius. But as soon as we sat down for the second half, it was clear that they had found their form. John Williams' Olympic Fanfare is the ideal piece for raising fervour, patriotic or otherwise, and it effectively focussed the rising sense of anticipation in the hall. Dvořák's Carnival Overture was another startling success, and in this, Bělohlávek's final concert at the helm of the BBC SO, it was an impressive demonstration of the Czech sensibilities he had instilled in the players.
A few short contributions from the two soloists followed, but nothing here to match their first half appearances. While Joseph Calleja was singing Grenada, I was thinking that his head voice is disappointingly thin. But when in the next number we all had to sing along with him in “You'll never walk alone” I suddenly realised that I don't even have a head voice, so full respect to the man.
There isn't really any point in discussing the musical merits of the evening's conclusion is there? Suffice it to say that Bělohlávek skilfully negotiated the boisterous crowd and gave a short but effective speech. When you've conducted as many grand operas as he has, the challenges of holding together an event of this scale must seem mild. The BBC SO took one small step towards gender equality with the first ever female euphonium soloist, one Becky Smith, in the Sea Songs. And there was a parade of Olympic medallists during Land of Hope and Glory. But otherwise tradition was strictly observed, giant flags, party poppers, silly hats and all.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Prom 63: Berlin Philharmonic Rattle Ligeti Wagner Sibelius Debussy Ravel 30 August 2012

Ligeti: Atmosphères
Wagner: Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin
Sibelius: Symphony No.4
Debussy: Jeux
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suite No.2

                                                                   (Photo BBC/Chris Christodoulou)

The Berlin Philharmonic were on fire this evening. Simon Rattle put an eclectic programme of music in front of them, that repeatedly took them a long way outside their comfort zone, but they rose to its many challenges magnificently. The orchestra didn't quite manage to maintain that white hot intensity for the whole concert, but even at its weakest points, it never dropped below world-class.
I have to confess a reservation about Rattle's programming of avant garde music with the Berlin Phil. The orchestra's famous chocolatey sting sound adds little to Messiaen, for example, so why bother performing that, or this evening's Ligeti, with an orchestra whose strengths lie elsewhere? I was wrong, very wrong. As the first, incandescent sounds of Atmosphères reached us from the far side of the cavernous Albert Hall, it was immediately clear that this was going to be an extraordinary performance.
The dreadful acoustic of the Albert Hall defeats most orchestras, but even this impediment has no serious effect on the Berlin Philharmonic. Ligeti opens his work with an inscrutable pianissimo cluster in the upper woodwinds, and the warm glow that the players gave this sound filled the hall, even at their minuscule dynamic. The rest of the work was just as absorbing and, yes, that chocolaty string sound turned out to be absolutely ideal. The performance was distinctive, but always true to the spirit of the work. It gave the lie to the often stated view that avant garde music should only be performed and never interpreted.
Rattle segued Atmosphères directly into the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin. If that is the justification required to perform this Modernist classic, then so be it, but I don't think either work really benefited. The idea seemed to be a transition from chaos to order, or from darkness to light. Wagner suffered more than Ligeti from this imposed narrative, as Rattle was obliged to remove any traces of complexity or darkness from the Prelude in order to create the required contrast. It was still a spellbinding performance though, and a tour de force from every section of the orchestra.
A well-connected source told me before the concert that Rattle had had difficulties getting the orchestra to consent to playing a Sibelius symphony. Apparently they haven't touched this repertoire since the Karajan days, and they were very reluctant to go back to it. That tension was apparent in the performance, with the orchestra often struggling to transmit the enthusiasm that was clearly reaching them from the podium. But Sibelius' Fourth doesn't really play to their strengths. The composer strenuously avoids the large tutti textures that are the orchestra's stock in trade, and replaces them with small ensembles that require a more astringent and contained sound. But the performance got better as it went on, and the third movement largo was the highlight. There was passion aplenty here, and the distinctive Berlin sound finally got a chance to contribute to the emotive impact.
The first piece after the interval demonstrated that it was not the radicalism of Sibelius' textures per se that had foxed the players beforehand. Debussy's Jeux is just as unusual in its deployment of the orchestra, perhaps more so. But this performance was ideal, and marked a glorious return to those glowing, luminous sounds that had made the Ligeti so special. There is usually a distinct sense of groundedness to the Berlin Phil string sound, which is totally at odds with the floating, filigree textures that Debussy calls for throughout this score. But somehow the orchestra managed to do both, creating a real depth of sound in the string textures, but without ever tying them down to the ground.
And then came the real crowning triumph of the evening, the Second Suite from Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe in a performance that brought together all the best qualities of the playing throughout the evening. Rattle was brave enough to let the flutes really stand out at the start, and the confidence and projection that they gave to the texture carried through the whole orchestra's performance right until the end of the work. And what ravishing climaxes, filling the whole hall with glorious, turbulent sensuous expression. The audience went absolutely wild afterwards. Who can blame them?

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Prom 39: Berlioz Requiem, Thierry Fischer

BBC National Chorus of Wales, Huddersfield Choral Society, London Symphony Chorus, BBC Nation Orchestra of Wales, Toby Spence (tenor), Thierry Fischer (conductor)
Berlioz: Grande messe des morts
Royal Albert Hall, 12.8.12

This has been a good year for Berlioz Requiems. It is only two months since Colin Davis conducted the work at St Paul’s, and since then Gardiner has performed it in Paris, in a concert web streamed live to appreciative British audiences.
Fortunately, Thierry Fischer is able to more than hold his own against those heavy weight Berlioz interpreters. He’s French of course, which has to be an asset [CORRECTION: He's Swiss, though I'm sure that's an asset too]. He also has an impressive skill in shepherding the huge forces the work employs. Nothing about the logistics of this undertaking visibly fazed him, and he was able to put in a distinctive and engaging interpretation. Berlioz asks for tempo changes, accels in particular, that more wary conductors might be inclined to ignore for the sake of ensemble. But Fischer confidently does everything the composer asks of him. Even so, this was a distinctly unsentimental reading; the tempos were fluid, but Fischer always resisted the temptation to dwell on the emotive climaxes, or to pull around the phrasing for emotive effect.
The choir, or choirs rather, were on his wavelength, and the choral singing was easily the best part of this performance. The ladies and gentlemen were positioned at opposite sides of the organ, but the coordination between them was never in question. Berlioz makes some extreme and unusual demands, but all were skilfully met. The tenors in particular have their work cut out, but coped well with all the high notes and awkward entries.
Sadly, Toby Spence couldn’t match the choir in his Sanctus solos. Spence underwent surgery on his throat earlier this year, so it is a wonder that he appeared at all this evening. But his voice clearly has not yet recovered. His performance was filled with emotion, and the legato with which he shaped the phrases was ideal. But the tone just wasn’t there, especially in the high notes, which hardly sounded at all.
The orchestra too had there problems. They suffered more than the choir in the dire Albert Hall acoustic. It is perhaps the ultimate indictment of this venue that even the Tuba Miram, one of the loudest passages in the whole repertoire, was swallowed up by the cavernous space. The orchestra had some tactics to deal with the sound problems. Everything they played, even the quieter music, was presented in a declamatory, no nonsense style. So not much subtlety here, but what else can you do?
The four brass bands were arranged at the corners of the orchestra, just as the score stipulates. This worked well, apart from the fact that the tiered stage gave the two bands and the back far more prominence than those at the front. Instrumentation-wise, there were no ophicleides, but there were cornets. The choice of trombones was good: following 19th century French custom, all the trombones were Bb tenors, giving a satisfying edge to all those long pedals.
The orchestral playing was often poorly coordinated. This may have been because of the emphatic attack the players were forced to give each entry, highlighting ensemble problems that may otherwise have escaped attention. This was a particular problem for the woodwind. On the other hand, the double basses had a great evening, and found a way to project through the texture against all the odds. The percussion also did very well. They seemed to occupy about half the stage, but despite their numbers their ensemble and balance was close to ideal.
A variable but enjoyable Berlioz Requiem then, from an unusually enlarged BBC NOW. Thierry Fischer is about to leave the orchestra, and this is the last Prom that he will conduct as their Musical Director. Against the odds, he managed to give a performance that was a real interpretation, and that, for the most part, held together without major problems. The choir though, were the real stars, and although the orchestral playing was serviceable at best, the performance was wholly redeemed by the high standard of ensemble singing.

Friday, 3 August 2012

What's wrong with public schools advertising in classical concert programmes?

Classical music has a big problem: its image is seriously at odds with its identity. Most people involved agree that classical music exists for all, and that everybody is equally capable, or at least entitled, to appreciate it. Yet the image classical music cultivates suggests the exact opposite. From the ethnic make-up of London orchestras to the dress code at Glyndebourne, a clear message is projected, that this is music for white affluent people, whose monopoly the rest of us are impinging just by our presence.
Last month, Andrew Mellor wrote a piece for the New Statesman arguing this point, albeit from a different angle. In his view, the problem boils down to the snobbery of classical audiences. From the huge number of responses to the post, it is clear that most disagree with this judgement, and it certainly doesn't square with my own experiences as a concert-goer. But Mellor supports his argument with some examples of the institutionalised snobbery that contributes to this attitude, and some of these are more difficult to dismiss.
'...if you turn up and buy a programme' at the Proms, Mellor writes, ' – which will cost marginally less than a £5 arena ticket – you’ll find it stuffed full with adverts for private schools. The subtext is as clear as it is nonsensical: we’ve all got money, that’s why we like this sort of music.'
This, like almost every other point in Mellor's article, has been contested. The seemingly watertight response was that public schools provide music scholarships, and so classical concert programmes are a natural place for them to advertise.
But this leads to further questions. Scholarships to otherwise fee-paying schools are offered, at least in part, to protect the charitable status of those institutions. And proficiency on a musical instrument in a classical context is deemed an appropriate criteria for selecting those upon whom the resulting privilege will be bestowed. But why only musical proficiency in a classical context? Why don't public schools also support projects like the BRIT School to produce a new generation of Amy Winehouses, or Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts to train the next Beatles? Then they could advertise at rock gigs and nightclubs, significantly reducing the implied social engineering of both the art form and the education system.
Instrumental scholarships allow public schools to maintain a paradox, in which the social background of pupils is deemed irrelevant, while the values the school instils are distinctly aristocratic. Classical music lays itself open to this appropriation because its identity rests on a similar paradox, one that its advocates are unwilling to address.
Those of us who love classical music tend to ascribe values to it that we don't extend to other genres. We see it as a power for good, both for the individual and for society. How and why it has this status is a question usually ignored. Kant's conception of the sublime absolves even the most rational of us of the obligation to examine that core belief in depth.
Why aren't other musical genres considered sublime? Why do so many parents cling to the concept of a 'Mozart Effect', long after the science has been discredited? And why, most crucially, is classical music considered such an elevated art form that it qualifies for almost the entire state funding to reach the musical world?
That last point suggests a defensive attitude to these questions is appropriate. But in these straitened times, financial imperatives are beginning to force an examination of accepted truths. Improvised music is providing an interesting fault line here. The Norwegian Ensemble Supersilent has been touring the UK recently, and Norman Lebrecht has taken issue with their Arts Council funding on the grounds that they don't rehearse. That seems like an arbitrary complaint in some ways, and it has certainly roused the ire of improvised music's champions, most notably Philip Clark. But it does at least suggest one criteria that we might look for when assessing music's qualification to be part of the funded/classical/sublime nexus. However, the fact that no agreement was reached, even on this small criterion, demonstrates just how deep the problem is.
As a classical fan myself, I am willing to ascribe classical music values that I'm unlikely to extend to other forms of music. But that's not the problem, the problem is the wilful disinterest (and I'm sure I am as guilty as any here) in pinning down what those values are. Even our continued use of the term 'classical music' demonstrates the problem. The word 'classical' is wholly inappropriate to the living reality of the classical music world. But the myth that the music propagates values that go back to the Graeco-Roman tradition is in everybody's interests (not least the public schools'). Internet chat rooms often debate the possibility of an alternative term. They always fail, not just because of the lack of other viable options, but because of the complex of values that the term 'classical' ascribes to the music, and upon which it depends, whether it lives up to them or not.
As long as we maintain vague notions about classical music as a virtuous and bettering art form, it is always going to be seen as a tool for social mobility too. That's where the perceived snobbishness of classical audiences stems from: everyone else here is going up in the world as a result of listening to this music, so you better be too. It is also the cause of classical music's curiously aristocratic image, which bares no relation to the social make-up of either the audience or the participants. Classical music isn't intrinsically exclusive, but it relies on the myth that it is as a key aspect of its identity. There aren't any easy solutions to this one, but getting those damned public school adverts out of concert programmes would be a great start.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Falstaff at Holland Park

Verdi: Falstaff
Opera Holland Park 20 July 2012
Conductor Peter Robinson Director Annilese Miskimmon Designer Nicky Shaw Lighting Designer Mark Jonathan

Olafur Sigurdarson Ford George von Bergen Alice Ford Linda Richardson Meg Page Carolyn Dobbin Mistress Quickly Carole Wilson Nanetta Rhona McKail Fenton Benjamin Hulett Dr Caius Christopher Turner Bardolpho Brian Galliford Pistola Simon Wilding
With the City of London Sinfonia and the Opera Holland Park Chorus 

Falstaff seems like the ideal opera for this company, not least because the whole of the last act takes place in a West London park. Yet this production is the first Holland Park has ever staged. It is their last offering for the year, and they've ended the season on a real high.
Director Annilese Miskimmon was responsible for the greatest triumph in last year’s season, l’Amico Fritz in a production that updated the action to the 1950s. This Falstaff shares many of the qualities on display there. Miskimmon clearly takes a hands-on approach to every aspect of her stagings, so nothing is left to chance, and everything that happens integrates into a considered and well though out interpretation. The result is a staging that is slick, funny and sexy. And while the historical setting has been changed, every lyric and performance direction is acknowledged, occasionally with a clever twist, but never at the expense of the work itself.
The production transports the action to London, or Windsor rather, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. This idea may have been inspired by Falstaff’s discharge from military service at the start, but after that its rationale grows thin. All the union jacks, bunting and maypoles may be intended to underline issues of national identity, although that was hardly a priority for the composer or librettist here.
So no real psychological insights from the updating, but it does provide an excellent visual theme for a stage aesthetic that is both attractive and coherent. There’s plenty of slapstick here too, which is all the finnier for its tight choreography. The men appearing onstage invariably end up dressed as priests or policemen, or rather comedy priests and comedy policemen. Verdi and Boito provide the details to fill out this scenario, and it all runs like clockwork.
Musically, this performance was impressively strong. As ever at Holland Park, most of the singers are up-at-coming, and while all put in fine performances, many suggested they could be giving more consummate readings of their roles in five or ten years time. This was particularly true of the female leads, Linda Richardson as Alice, and Rhona McKail as Nanetta, both of whom had all the notes under control, but could just do with a little more finesse, especially at the top. George von Bergen, in the role of Ford, is another name to watch. His voice is light, but he has a real verismo sound, and the complexity and dark richness to his tone allows him to convey an extraordinary range of emotions.
It is rare to find a singer who is able to fill the marquee that constitutes an auditorium at Holland Park, a problem their policy of hiring younger singers can only exacerbate. How refreshing then to hear Olafur Sigurdarson sing Falstaff with as much power and presence as the venue and the role demand. Sigurdarson was born to sing Falstaff, both his voice and his body language are ideal for the part. And while he is able to fill the venue with sound, he can also bring the timbre of his singing down, almost to speaking, a talent Verdi’s music often requires. And his roly poly slapstick was excellent, fitting precisely to the mood and pace of the music.
In the pit, the orchestra had a better night of it than they did for last week’s premiere of Onegin. A few more strings had been booked, which was a great help. The orchestra was still relatively small, but the tuttis never suffered, and conductor Peter Robinson was able to create all the havoc he needed for the bust ups and brawls, while always keeping the ensemble tightly controlled.
An excellent end to Holland Park’s 2012 season then. Falstaff was here presented as a real ensemble piece, with almost uniform musical quality from the cast, and a production that finds meaningful interpretations for each of their roles. But the real star of the show was undoubtedly Olafur Sigurdarson. If you get the chance to hear him sing Falstaff, here or anywhere else, make sure you go.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Onegin at Holland Park 13 July 2012

Tchaikovsky: Evgeny Onegin
Opera Holland Park 13 July 2012
Conductor Alexander Polianichko, Director Daniel Slater, Designer Leslie Travers, Lighting Designer Mark Jonathan, Choreographer Denni Sayers

Mark Stone, Tatyana Anna Leese, Lensky Peter Auty, Olga Hannah Pedley, Madame Larina Anne Mason, Prince Gremin Graeme Broadbent, Filippyevna Elizabeth Sikora, Triquet Gareth Dafydd Moriss,
Zaretsky/Captain Barnaby Rea
With the City of London Sinfonia and the Opera Holland Park Chorus 

Tchaikovsky's Onegin is treated to a gentle re-imagining in this new production at Holland Park. Director Daniel Slater throws in a handful of clever ideas to contextualise the drama and to suggest some deeper psychology. His interventions get more radical as the evening progresses, and for some reason the musical standards at this first night performance followed suit, with both the music and drama becoming more convincing as the evening progressed.
The unfortunate result is that there is a lot of mediocrity to sit through before this Onegin really comes to life. The performance began with a less than promising prelude. Those swooning string figures in the opening bars had to compete against a wide range of noises-off from the park, and the tiny string section (how can you perform Onegin with only two cellos?) wholly failed to set the mood. The musical coordination was also shaky for the first scene or so, and the incoherent opening ensemble from the four leads was a worrying omen of what was to follow.
Perhaps this was just first night jitters though, as the standards soon improved, with each of the lead singers becoming more and more convincing, both musically and dramatically. Director Daniel Slater sets the first two acts in a decaying aristocratic environment of late 19th/early 20th century Russia. It's more Chekhov than Pushkin but it works well enough. Slater ensures that the singers always act; the drama is always engaged, and usually engaging, although the sheer weight of detail can occasionally make the interactions seem clumsy.
For his first big idea, Slater has the silent figures of the mature Onegin and Tatyana stalking their younger selves throughout this first act. Combined with the decayed opulence of the scenery and the often nostalgic music, this places the action of the first act squarely in the past tense. Otherwise, the interpretive interventions in the first two acts are minimal. There is an interesting piece of choreography after the letter scene, in which the ladies of the chorus all briefly become Tatyanas, all swarming around Onegin, each offering him a letter. But Slater doesn't mess with the set pieces, giving fairly traditional accounts of the letter scene and the duel, both of which are presented with an impressive sense of atmosphere.
The cast is mostly young, but most of the singers have the vocal maturity to inhabit their respective roles. Tatyana and Olga are certainly convincing when played by the young singers Anna Leese and Hannah Pedley. It takes a greater stretch of the imagination to see the equally young Mark Stone and Peter Auty as Onegin and Lensky, but they just about pull it off.
Top musical honours go to Anna Leese, whose performance as Tatyana is worth coming out to West London for on its own. The richness and timbral complexity of her voice makes her performance endlessly fascinating. And she's got a real knack for presenting the drama of the story in her singing, a rare gift indeed. That said, she has a tendency to go sharp and the top, and she doesn't support the ends of longer phrases as well as she might, a failing Tchaikovsky’s music highlights. Even so, she remains this company's greatest asset. There was no danger of Hannah Pedley stealing the show from her, although Pedley's Olga had the clearest diction of any of the roles.
Mark Stone presents Onegin as a complex and not very likeable character, although it took him until the last act to really inhabit the role. Peter Auty plays Lensky for laughs in the first act, allowing some character development leading into his more angst-ridden role in the second. Both could do with another ten years or so to develop the richness in the lower register that give those characters their authority. Similarly with Graeme Broadbent in the role of Gremin – he's basso yes, but profundo no. Hearing this lightweight rendition of the Prince in Act Three highlighted the fact that their wasn't a single Russian singer in the cast, an unusual situation for any Onegin.
There was a Russian on the podium though, and Alexander Polianichko has more experience with this score than anybody else involved. He gave a passionate but ordered account, and after the orchestra had settled down around the middle of the first act, he was able to deliver a thoroughly Russian sound from the pit.
The reason for the Chekov-era setting of Acts 1 and 2 become clear at the start of the third, where it transpired that the five years that Onegin had spent abroad had spanned the Revolution. That's a clever ploy on a number of levels, the most obvious being the iconography it provides for this last act, all proletarian uniforms and Revolutionary posters (the big face of Lenin in the wardrobe was taking things a bit far though). 'Prince' Gremin is now a captain in the Soviet army, with Tatyana his devoted bride, and Onegin a White Russian out of step with the new order. In terms of the narrative, this allows the director to make sense of Tatyana's devotion to her new husband – as a symptom of revolutionary fervour rather than continuing naivety. All in all the revolutionary thing is a great idea, and it doesn't seriously grate against the libretto either.
Daniel Slater's interpretive ideas are strongly weighted towards the end of the work, with even the theme of remembrance in the first act making the crucial drama there into a mere prelude for what is to come. This dramatic trajectory is at odds with Tchaikovsky’s (let alone Pushkin's) symmetrical and evenly balanced narrative. If the musical standards had been even throughout, this device might have worked better, but when combined with the ensemble problems in the first act, the overall impression was that the start of the opera was being effectively written off in favour of the more imaginatively staged conclusion.
A good Onegin then, but an uneven one. Musically, a larger orchestra and a few more mature singers could have improved matters. Dramatically, the interpretation convinces because every interaction in the story is acknowledged, and many are explored in detail. Just enough new ideas are added in to allow us to take a fresh look at the story, and without it changing beyond recognition. But it takes a long time to get going, and the first act does feel like a wasted opportunity, especially in comparison with the many musical and dramatic insights that follow.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Internet responses to Stockhausen's Helicopter Quartet

With the first performance of Stockhausen's Helicopter Quartet in the UK, or above it rather, just a few weeks away, those with an interest can turn to the internet to learn about the work and its history. YouTube has some interesting videos, including this one on the 1995 performance at the Holland Festival, and a short clip of a more recent performance in Salzburg in 2003. The latter is worth a look just for the comments, which now number well over 3,000.
Sadly, the level of debate is pitiful, even by YouTube's unenviable standards. But it does demonstrate a surprising lack of comprehension in this fairly transparent work. Perhaps I'm being naïve, but I'd have thought that a generation raised on the industrial sounds of thrash metal and suchlike would have little problem with the mechanical noises on which this music is based.
But no, it seems passive hostility is the best that Stockhausen can expect here. Some commentators are supportive, although mostly of the idea of modern music rather than the piece or its composer. And the one fact that Stockhausen's detractors have picked up is that he described the September 11 attacks as 'the greatest work of art ever', a statement that does have a certain resonance when disparaging the composer's airborne aesthetic.
Most responses are a bit more basic than that though. Here's a sample. My favourite is the last one:

what 4 hyperactive and completely unmusical children would do if handed string instruments for the first time.
Am I supposed to call it music just for the sake of modernity?
this video is brilliant. i LOVE Monty Python!
a hideous mockery of music
holy shit i didnt know they made classical grindcore.
Certainly, this kind of music is the most ungodly pile of shit ever conceived of by the human mind.
However terrible this sounds, it still sounds better than metal music.
this is horrendous
just pointless and terrible
Be honest--it's crap.
Stockhausen - what was wrong with this dude! it sounds awful!
Pointless....A complete waste of time.
I support odd music but this is not worth the carbon emissions those helicopters generated.
i could have been watching porn this whole time