Saturday, 12 July 2008
Mahler 8: cathedral and studio
Only a professional engagement could have made me eat my words below about not going to the great blaze-up finale of Gergiev's Mahler cycle ('the Eighth in St Paul's is not an option, given the dire acoustics for such a work'). I went on Wednesday - Alberto Venzago's photos above and below are taken from the final rehearsal - because I had to go into the BBC on Thursday to comment on the second of the two live performances with Petroc Trelawny and Ed Seckerson. I knew that sitting in a studio with a score for this of all epics would be nothing like experiencing all those forces, however muddied, in a great building. So I prima-donnaishly told the nice City of London Festival press officer Emily Caket that she was - tall order, owing to demand - to get me a seat under the Dome, otherwise I wouldn't go.
She did, and even there some of it was the expected horror story. Where were the off-offstage bands? What were the strings up to, most of the time, except when they finally got to sing their hearts out as Goethe's Mater Gloriosa soars into view in Mahler's Wagnerian second 'act' (and Gergiev, with his superb rubato, handled that so beautifully)? Was the Mater Gloriosa herself, one of many Russian imports, singing so desperately flat because she couldn't hear the orchestra from wherever she was suspended?
And yet...and yet much of it was so spirited and, ultimately, painfully moving. I was amazed at how disciplined Gergiev's beat can be when he can't have the creative freedom he wants: just keeping those mighty forces in order in the welter of the Pentecostal Hymn's turbulent belly was a major task, and I thought he handled it superbly. Many of the Russians did justify their appearance, even if they wouldn't usually be natural casting for the heavyweight parts: Anastasia Kalagina (soprano 1 for one night only) didn't soar over the top like her 'second', the interesting Ailish Tynan, but came across nice and clearly in middle range, while the tenor Sergey Semishkur - only in Russia would a Fenton also engage in heldenrep - and baritone Alexey Markov did as good a job on their rhapsodies as any I've heard. Choruses could have done with some professional ballasting; why fly over the Choral Arts Soc of Washington when a dozen or so BBC Singers would have backboned better? But the Eltham College kids, everyone agreed, were superbly cheeky, cupping their hands around their mouths to get the message across.
As for curate's egg Valery, this was a first-rate showing after the ineptly Ferrari-style Ninth last month.
Ed doesn't think he gets the easy-going, folktale aspect, and I'd agree, though as I said the quotient in the Eighth isn't high. He and I disagreed over Gergiev v Nott in Mahler One - he finds the Nott more imposing than I do - but concorded, as we often do, over some other aspects. Anyway, we both agreed that the BBC engineers had done a supernatural job in rescuing the performance from St Paul's acoustics. But I was so glad I went on Wednesday, and I even look forward to the LSO Live release.
Packing into St Paul's reminded me that it's exactly a year since we attended friend Andrew Hammond's ordination as deacon there. Yesterday (as I add this footnote it's Sunday morning) we attended his Biggest Day Yet, the one in which he got the green light to give communion as a fully-fledged vicar. This was at his church in St John's Wood, and the service went on much longer than Mahler 8 (it also, incidentally, included the 'Veni creator spiritus' which Mahler sets at such length in the first part of his symphony). There are trimmings of high Anglicanism which aren't to my taste - all part of the ongoing ambiguity in my agnostic relationship with the church - and yet I'm very happy for Father Andrew. Once again the Rev. Alice Goodman was there (see May blog), this time with her godfather, composer Hugh Wood, whom I was delighted to meet as I remember being a great fan of his Symphony as a teenager (it was performed at the Proms and I still have the tape). I don't know why I haven't really followed anything he's done since. Here he is with his equally distinguished goddaughter.
A final footnote: while Father Andrew was giving his first communion the following evening, the openly gay American Bishop Gene Robinson was speaking, and being heckled, in Putney. The church is tearing itself apart, and how can those who exclude Robinson and his like truly be called Christian in spirit? Andrew's sermoniser, Archdeacon Mark Oakley, spoke obliquely but eloquently of the church as a Noah's ark in which the privileged few should make room and straw available to any 'weird and wonderful' fellow animal seeking refuge. The gist of this is also to be found in his article for the Church Times. Nicely put, and who's to say he should have been more direct? It's a difficult time for the Anglicans.
After the light of those rather exhausting church services, darkness visible. Having seen eight productions and concert renderings of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, I'd resisted going to see Tim Burton's film on the strength of the clips I'd seen: Jonny Depp doing a cutprice David Bowie on the songs, a low-key and seemingly unfunny rendering of the vaudeville 'Little Priest' number (which, as it turns out, makes sense in context). I knew I'd have to see it sooner or later and last night we watched the DVD which friend Simon, who's seen it three times, gave me for my birthday.
I was amazed. Yes, it's odd to hear Sweeney and Lovett crooning rather than respectively operaticising and showbizzing, but the world that Burton creates along with Depp and the as always surprisingly good Mrs B, Helena Bonham-Carter, strikes no false notes. A master filmmaker now, he tells the tale through visual elan, and thus dispenses of the ballads, which I didn't think I'd approve, but in this context I do. All the suppporting roles are impeccable taken - OK, Joanna's briefly irritating, but when is she not? - and the idea of taking brutalised serving-boy Tobias from an adolescent-sounding tenor and giving the role to a Dickensian waif with a very strong treble voice worked superbly (never has 'Nothing's gonna harm you' sounded stronger or less sentimental).
Of the cut numbers, I missed only the dizzying Act one Quartet, and the horrifying finale was much tightened up. Tunick, I think it is, has underscored the new material with consistently haunting orchestrations, and how wonderful that millions - including, according to my teacher friend, countless kids who shouldn't have seen this very bloody 18-certificate - can become acquainted with top-notch music theatre (the film respects the musical in running for the first fifteen minutes without the score coming to a halt). Only one cavil: how in a film can a sexually debased beggar woman not be allowed to sing 'how'd you like to push me crumpet' and yet the throat-cuttings, above all of the Judge, be executed with such gut-wrenching goriness?
Finally, another DVD which I've had on the stocks waiting to wax lyrical over for some time.
This utterly charming French road movie makes so light of the fact that its hero is unemployed, gay (and happily 'married'), HIV-positive and half-North African (except where it tells in the plot). His one-to-ones with gradually assembling members of an alternative family on the way to find his father in Marseille are consummately done with a superb supporting cast (and a very sexy 'cousin'). We're getting a lot of pleasure from LoveFilm, though haven't been in to watch any recently; however I don't mention the dross, of which there's been plenty, especially in the 'gay arthouse movie' category. And we've had enough of Robert Bresson, though I see the point - must have been amazing at the time.