Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Best of 2007?

The question-mark is there because I can’t pretend an overview of all the great events of last year. That’s why, of course, we had a wide-ranging jury for the 2007 BBC Music Magazine Awards, nominations for which are there on the magazine’s website awaiting your votes until 28 February. Hardest-fought categories were Instrumental and Chamber, where some of us only had our way thanks to certain shuntings over to the jury-only awards (yet to be announced, so I’ll keep mum on that).

In two categories I can balance what I’d personally like to see win – Hayroudinoff’s Rachmaninov Etudes-Tableaux and Schwanewilms’s Strauss Lieder disc – with what I think the public may (equally deservedly) choose – Mitsuko Uchida’s magisterial Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata and the Terezin anthology from Anne-Sofie von Otter and friends. I was sorry not to see any of Julia Fischer’s several concertos discs make it to the Orchestral troika, and must briefly note that candidates for the ‘Opera and Dramatic Oratorio’ category were very thin on the ground – a dearth more than compensated by the DVD offerings decided by the jury (and TBA). Most overrated of the reviewers' five-star choices which we had to sift? Surely the misalliance of a tired-sounding Thomas Quasthoff and Dorothea Roschmann in the least impressive of many Bach cantatas up for consideration, an otherwise revelatory strand in the mountain of listening.

In the meantime the CD containing my Most Played Track of the Year couldn't be considered for the 2007 awards because it had already appeared on another label. That’s Wigmore Hall Live’s (re)issue of the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s 1998 lunchtime recital...


...and the track in question is her carefully modulated, earth-motherish dream of a Handel aria, ‘As with rosy steps’ from Theodora. Roger Vignoles’s ethereal tread makes sure we don’t miss the orchestral trappings.

The beginning of 2007 saw me eat my words about not sitting through another Handel staging if I could help it. Four hours of his relatively early masterpiece, Agrippina, at English National Opera flew by thanks to the teeming inspiration – many of the arias, of course, found more famous homes in later works – and the witty, resourceful staging of David McVicar, briefly dark and threatening when it needed to be. The cast wasn’t as perfect as Sir Charles Mackerras’s line-up for the revival of the Royal Opera Orlando a few weeks later, but each singer communicated vividly and relished the opportunities McVicar provided for a tour de force or two. The cocktail bar scene (seen here in Clive Barda's production photograph with Christine Rice as Nero and Lucy Crowe as Poppea) was laugh-out-loud funny.



Most unsettling operatic scene of the year would have to be the shadowing of Banquo and Fleance by the assassins in Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Verdi’s Macbeth. Cardboard boxes and smilies have never seemed more sinister. It was musically a top-notch evening too. I also felt – and in this I’m in even more of a minority – that drama and music fused perfectly in the Royal Opera’s much-booed Pelleas et Melisande: to use the pit and the auditorium as the natural world seen and sensed by Debussy’s bewildered protagonists was an inspiration on Stanislas Nordey's part that also allowed perfect co-ordination with Rattle and the orchestra as well as direct communication with the audience.

Stinker of the year? Glass’s Satyagraha: four chords in forty-five minutes for starters – my conventional mind screamed out for modulation – and an overrated cliché-ridden production from Improbable Theatre. All so dead on its feet at ENO after live-wire Americana courtesy of Bernstein, Comden and Green in Jude Kelly’s revival of On the Town – a total work of art that wears its learning lightly.

For me, the most overwhelming theatrical event of 2007 year was the National Theatre of Iceland’s mortuary-bound Peer Gynt, directed with an intensity that veered between the visceral and the visionary by Baltasur Kormakur. Eggert Thor Jonsson's photograph of Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson’s Peer at the end of his life, visited by a final vision of Solveig (Brynhildur Gudjonsdottir), shows one of many extraordinary stage pictures.


I saw this fast-moving but by no means cut-to-ribbons Ibsen adaptation twice in one week at the Barbican's Pit theatre, and it wrung me out on both occasions. The sudden havens of crucial Grieg – Ase’s lament, Solveig’s song – in the often frightening ‘sound design’ certainly helped to heighten the emotions. And how extraordinary not only that the Icelanders should have learnt it in English for their London appearance, but also that they should have spoken the feisty translation with a clarity and range that you don't often hear at the RSC or the National (though notable exceptions there have been Simon Russell Beale's perfect comic timing in Hytner's sunny - too sunny? - Much Ado about Nothing - and poor Alex Jennings, doing his best to put resonance into the arch piece of fluff that is Coward's Present Laughter).

Finally, and briefly, the concert scene: hard to choose between a Gergiev blockbuster programme that actually worked, again at the Barbican - Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Rite of Spring bookending Debussy's La Mer and a Prelude a l'apres midi with the most refined of dying falls, and Prokofiev's raucous incantation Seven,they are Seven - and the complete Kodaly Hary Janos music done with gusto by Hungarians under Adam Fischer in Vienna. Kodaly's ideas and orchestration teem with wit and spirit throughout: no excuse for just hearing the Suite (and even that's a rarity in the UK, perhaps because cimbalom players are thin on the ground here?) New works? Unquestionably Widmann's ad absurdam... (see first blog entry) and, on a larger scale, MacMillan's The Sacrifice also featured below, promising big things for his new Passion this Easter.

I wanted to go on to books and films, but I've prated too much already, so that'll have to do.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Song and dance in Mali

I promised not to tax your patience with reams of holiday snaps and chat. Yet I think I can justify a brief zigzag across the blog-piste if I stick to matters more or less musical.

There are almost as few travellers' destinations in Mali as there are travellers to fill them (though fill them, in peak season, they easily do). So it's only to be expected that rituals have been tailored to order: in Dogon country, where animist traditions cling on partly due to a devil's pact with tourism, they bring out the fake masks - the real ones are, of course, sacred - and do fake dances to order (it was our signal to flee down the falaise once the hitherto quiet village of Begni Mato welcomed a tour group, and the drumming began).

Of course those who travel in twos, threes or fours high-handedly demand a more authentic experience when they can command it; such is the paradox of our privileged wanderings. We found it during the holiday of Tabaski (the west African version of the Muslims' Eid Al-adha festival, the one marking the Abraham and Isaac story), riding out with Sophie to Diabolo, a quiet village near Djenne. Our informal tour of Diabolo was hassle-free and amiable; but it was enlivened enormously by the entertainment taking place near the pond. Dame Ethel Smyth would have been pleased to find a (nearly all) ladies' ensemble...


...accompanying a group we later saw described as 'the Women Dancers of Diabolo'. So they weren't averse to performing their rites before tourists; but this was a spontaneous event to celebrate Tabaski.


The men of Djenne, in the meantime, honoured Friday prayers at the great mud mosque in all their new just-for-Tabaski finery:


Afterwards, they filed out and stood for five minutes in silent rows to mark a funeral. Sophie thought we were exceptionally fortunate to witness Djenne life at its most formal and colourful. She did, in fact, wheel out an instrumental ensemble at Hotel Djenne Djenno for a large tour party which failed to materialise - for an explanation, see Sophie's recent blog entry. Anyway, the few of us there were lucky enough to enjoy a very spirited balaphone group. I'm fortunate to have heard this big xylophone wielded with supreme mastery by Mamadou Diabate, the leading virtuoso from Burkina Faso, in a very strange meeting with schrammel players at one of Vienna's many heurigen. But Sophie's boys certainly had plenty of panache.

What little I've heard of Malian music is pure sunshine, incarnate in the bluegrass but not at all bluesy guitar of the late, great Ali Farka Toure. His playing nicely encapsulates the apparently easy-going spirit of a delightful people.

I'll leave you with a shot of me at my jolliest, sitting on the roof of our pinasse as we sailed down the majestic Niger, not far from Ali Farka's home village of Niafounke.


You'd never know that I'd just spent one of the worst nights imaginable, buffeted by the windswept waves of Lake Debo in the heart of the Niger inland delta. Sunrise, though, brought a return to the high spirits of the previous day's journey from Timbuktu. And we did make our ultimate destination, Mopti, in a record-breaking two days.

Stony reception

Peter Bourne, a ‘life member of the Serge Prokofiev Association’ and no relation (I assume) of our hero St. Matthew, e-mailed me to say he had found his way to the blog. Although he ‘read it with great interest and enjoyment’, he found the tone of my Stone Flower appraisal rather negative, even if he agreed with most of my criticisms (Mr Bourne, I’ll spare you my views on the same company’s Nutcracker – let’s just leave it at the choice adjectives ‘incoherent’ and ‘routine’). Perhaps I should have started by making it clear that it could only be a good thing that someone, at last, should have fought for the right to choregraph more than anyone else in the UK has ever done of Prokofiev's full score. So thanks, first and foremost, to Michael Corder for making the attempt against the odds.

Mr Bourne thinks that the production would come closer to being a ‘genuinely popular ballet classic’ rather than a ‘near miss’ if they did what we wanted and reinstated the ‘Mistress of the Copper Mountain’ introduction. Would it be asking too much of the restive ballet audience to sit through Prokofiev’s Prologue before curtain up? It might mean a cut or two in the choreography, but that would surely be no bad thing. How about it, Corder and co?

Friday, 4 January 2008

A Nutcracking New Year...


...to any readers. It should have been a Christmas greeting, but the selection of images didn't reach me in time before we headed off to Mali. Anyway, here is Eric Richmond's production photograph of the three flavoursome Gobstoppers (aka the Trepak boys) from what is now a Matthew Bourne evergreen (I dug out my old Edinburgh Festival programme to remind myself that his Nutcracker! premiered with Opera North's Yolanta over a decade and a half ago). They provided the icing on the cake to the I-want-to-be-in-the-show euphoria of a New Adventures pre-Xmas Saturday matinee. I took young Evie Bell to see it, and though her reaction was one of extreme intoxication - we couldn't prise her out of her seat after Act One, so impatient was she for the show to go on - her father and I relished it almost as much. With the dancers appearing costumed in the Sadler's Wells foyer afterwards to collect money for AIDS charities, the trepak troika were a draw for an indulgent godfather, while Evie gravitated more towards the marshmallow girls and cossetted Sugar Plum. I don't know which of us felt more like a kid in a sweetshop.

The show - for show it certainly is - still brims with energy, perhaps because so many of the dancers (including those Gobstoppers) are fresh from ballet school. Bourne's gift for comic and occasionally scary storytelling goes way beyond the tame mimes of classical ballet, and the designs have lost nothing of their garish audacity. After three weeks of listening to 14 full-orchestral Nutcrackers for Radio Three's Building a Library - you may now have heard how pacy, brightly lit Gergiev took the biscuit - I found it surprisingly easy to adjust to the 20-piece band, mainly because Brett Morris allowed no inch of slack. We took Evie to meet the very friendly harpist in the pit afterwards, and she revealed a few secrets about synths stepping in for second harp, tambourine and cymbals when the players had their hands too full (and she was already playing as much of both harp parts as she could). It was an especially bright idea to have only one cello launch the Pas de deux - no point in trying to make a handful sound like a glossy full-orchestral section.

That Saturday was quite a day to bid farewell to glittering London before succumbing to travel fever. I had to leave Evie and Simon swanning with the dancers and rush down to the Barbican to give another pre-performance talk before more Tchaikovsky - the ideas-packed Third Orchestral Suite alongside Rachmaninov's Fourth Piano Concerto, made to sound like naturalness itself (which it isn't) by Nelson Freire, and the Divertimento from Stravinsky's Baiser de la fee. Reports from Moscow had been mixed about Bolshoy supremo Alexander Vedernikov, but he impressed with a clear textured Prokofiev Fiery Angel last year, and this concert with an evidently smitten BBC Symphony Orchestra set new standards in the high Tchaikovsky style. Much more detailed and supple than Jurowski's performance a few seasons back - which only went to show that you can't stint with rehearsal time on the exposed and selective instrumentation - Vedernikov's paired two sets of movements, showing the Valse melancolique as the dark flipside of the bittersweet opening Elegie and sweeping without a break from the scherzo through the earlier variations before rising to the challenge of the imperial polonaise. The audience was giddy with Tchaikovsky's profligacy of melodic invention, and Vedernikov will certainly be back, possibly for the complete Sleeping Beauty in concert with the BBCSO (though I did also mention to Paul Hughes that I hoped they'd run to the expense of four accordions for the delicious Second Suite, too).

I'll think of something later to say about those BBC Music Mag awards nominations, now public knowledge, and perhaps add a line or two about our extraordinary holiday, though I know this shouldn't be the forum for such things. In the meantime, I need to recover some photos as well as a certain amount of sleep lost in the overnight flight (not to mention throughout a bumpy night on the bottom of a coracle crossing a wind-tossed lake in the middle of the Niger delta). Mali tended to exaggerate the familiar traveller's mix of exhilaration and exasperation; now it feels right to be back. In the meantime, you can view an embarrassing photo of Brits out in the midday sun before the Djenne Mosque over on Sophie's blog.