Wednesday, 26 November 2008
It hadn’t occurred to me when I took this picture, of the empty chairs and stands left after LSO players had followed my Prokofiev talk at St Luke’s on Sunday afternoon with a spirited performance of the tricky Quintet, that it might tie in with the current wave of loss both private and public. I certainly felt sad to hear of the untimely death of Richard Hickox. I won’t play false to memory by saying that I admired him hugely as a conductor, but he did a great deal for a vast swathe of repertoire. Without him we may not have got to hear the original version of Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony, nor (in concert) the Mozart/Strauss Idomeneo and the original Ariadne, both bringing Christine Brewer to the fore.
I may have found him wanting in music which required a strong rhythmic sense – let’s pass over the dances in his Covent Garden performances of Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage, which were boorishly booed – but when he had a feeling for a certain spiritual inwardness in works he loved, the results could be very moving. So I’m very happy that I last saw him in action with Vaughan Williams' Pilgrim's Progress back in June. That semi-staged performance has already gone down as a one-in-a-thousand event, as it made me adore the work; how much more so will we treasure it now. I’m glad, though people mumbled at the time, that his eldest son got to sing a treble role, and that Mrs Hickox, Pamela Helen Stephen, was in it too.
My heart goes out to them and the two other young Hickoxes all the more because it was heartbreaking to have to look at Nell’s lovely children at the Glastonbury funeral service on Monday. I’ll freely admit that it wasn’t appropriate to have gone on not only to my class back in London that afternoon, but also to the Royal Opera Elektra. How could an (effectively) raving soprano battling against a 111-piece orchestra really have much an effect when I was haunted by the image of Nell’s young son Paddy playing ‘Love me tender’ on the guitar, supported by his teacher? What's more tragic-heroic, the bloody zenith of a family feud or a little boy courageously offering up a tribute to his dead mother under difficult circumstances?
Hansel with the class felt a bit more meaningful than Elektra, especially as we happened to be following the Richard Jones production as released on DVD by the Met in conjunction with EMI. Its scary-tender dream banquet, photographed here for the Met by Ken Howard, struck just the right note. NB Jones's musicality - the lids come off only at the very climax of Humperdinck's pantomime-ballet:
Gretel's little song in the wood as sung by the late, lamented Lucia Popp on CD was also bound to be more in tune with my mood than Susan Bullock’s spasmodic jubilation on the cluttered stage of Covent Garden.
You never know how you’re going to be taken by funeral services. The one for Simon’s mum was so bright and bittersweet, partly due to the presence of so many thespians; this, I think because of the kids, was fairly distressing throughout. Even so, the Tavener tied in well with a bagpiper heralding the coffin at the beginning, and his dulcet tones just made us laugh at the end in Ivesian melange with Monty Python’s ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ (hearing ‘life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it’ in the hallowed surroundings of St. John's did seem briefly hysterical). After I’d got through my tribute with difficulty, a headmaster from Cerne reminded us what a bloody-minded if inspirational teacher Nell had been. Simon played Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits unaccompanied on his flute, an odd parallel with my LSO talk the previous afternoon when I’d had the benefit of the orchestra's guest principal flautist Michael Cox representing various Prokofiev heroines (and a surprise sell-out of a book-signing turned poignant when two of the audience wanted ‘in memory’ inscriptions to, respectively, a Kenyan poet-husband and a violinist daughter who’d suffered from MS).
And, of course, we all roared out the Glastonbury anthem ‘Jerusalem’. Coincidentally, I can take you photographically from the thorn in the 15th century south chancel window of St John's…
...to the birthplace of the author of ‘And did those feet…’, which I came across by chance arriving from Glastonbury back in Piccadilly Circus, and wandering the streets of Soho to pick up a score in Chappell’s before my class.
The angry poet, with his London ‘signs of weakness, signs of woe’, would not be too impressed by the state of William Blake House, erected I guess in the 1970s on the spot.
Anyhow, a word or two about Elektra. In my few objective moments I could tell that even on a normal day, I wouldn’t have been quite swept away by this curate’s egg of a show. I loathed Charles Edwards’ production first time around, when Anne Schwanewilms’ Chrysothemis was the only redeeming feature musically speaking. This time, though her top notes seemed to have lost something of their gleam from where I was sitting, she was surrounded by quality. Bullock has worked so hard on meaning and character that it seems a bit churlish to ask for laser-beam notes above the stave; but for anyone who'd heard Gwyneth, Behrens or even Marton hurl them out, this was bound to feel a little bit less than a superstar performance.
In any case Bullock, like everyone else, has to make so many calculated moves – Edwards, a designer first and foremost, and an imaginative one, has props, so everyone must use them – that the flow of psychological truth never has a chance. ‘Here I pick up the bust of Agamemnon and jig about a bit with it’, ‘here I post on the Bauhaus wall a picture of a missing child’ (to spell out to the audience Orest’s absence), ‘here I pick up the axe’ (premature to Strauss’s digging-music, and to laughter from the audience). And, later, there goes Aegisth a third time through the revolving doors with yet more blood on him and you realise why we had to have them in the first place, and there’s Orest raising his knife against Chrysothemis amid palace carnage; you half expect her to have to execute her last cries like the dying Countess Geschwitz in Lulu, though he spares her. Welch eines hundesfruehstuck, as one amusing Parterre poster put it. Elder’s conducting? Too heavy, for me – I remember Thielemann before his spoiling really making it sound like Strauss’s exaggerated ‘fairy music by Mendelssohn’. What a disappointment – and how difficult to dodge various ecstatic dignitaries afterwards as I forced myself to mumble ‘well, it didn't work for me, but maybe that’s my problem’.
I wanted to be more positive about the ENO Boris Godunov, which has had a rough ride in the press. Call me partisan, but I’d still say that Peter Rose’s Boris, seen above with his children in the Coronation Scene as portrayed by Clive Barda, represented the only world-class performance on stage; the artistry of the phrasing and the skill not to go too histrionically over the top in the hallucination might have passed a lot of punters by. Many raved about Sherratt’s Pimen, but it’s just a bass colour of the sort that many associate with the Russians. Slavic Peter wasn’t, and I didn’t find the death scene moving – but then I never have, not even with Gidon Saks.
So that may be Musorgsky's fault. Certainly you can lay at the composer’s door the way that one’s spirits, stirred by the two crowd scenes, slowly sink during the multiple narratives in the Chudov Monastery and the relentlessly unfunny tavern antics (especially sober at ENO this time). Interest and involvement are slowly rekindled in the ‘Palace Apartments’ Scene, but that would have been so much better if they’d played out the revised version throughout; this was, edition wise, as usual, an unsuccessful cut-and-paste. Tim Albery’s production has its moments, but I’m not sure you can quite reduce the needy populace to the level of a gulag group, and the jury is out on the big, claustrophobic barn which only opens up occasionally (and strikingly).
All power to Ed Gardner, drawing incisive, heavy colours in the pit. He’s announced that he will take up Hickox’s baton for the three ENO performances of Riders to the Sea. Given the subject-matter, it’s probably going to be an emotional half-hour-plus. What a shame to end the Vaughan Williams celebrations in grief at yet another interpreter (Vernon Handley being the other) failing to crown his due commemoration.