Sunday 28 February 2010

More fleshcreep

That Hilary Mantel is another one who can get right under your skin. She never seems to pen a lazy word or a dull sentence; like Prokofiev and Richard Jones - another scene from whose Brussels Fiery Angel is pictured above, surely designed by John MacFarlane - she takes you on a mind-altering journey whose end is totally unpredictable. Ghosts have always been her companions. They are, she tells us in her haunting memoir, 'the tags and rags of everyday life, information you acquire that you don't know what to do with, knowledge that you can't process; they're cards thrown out of your card index, blots on the page.'

Sometimes they're just what they are, like the little demons that bite Evelyn Oxon, the terrifying but explicable mother of that sly, mad Muriel in Every Day is Mother's Day who goes on to wreak further havoc on the unhappy mortals of Vacant Possession. Sometimes they rise to terrify from banal and even funny beginnings, like the awful spirit-guide Morris and his gathering cohorts in Beyond Black. That's where I began my Mantel voyage, despite the fact that J was pressing on me Wolf Hall and A Place of Greater Safety, which of course I will reach, but not until I've exhausted the truly personal as rendered by a very peculiar and wonderful human being.

Big Al the medium is one of the great heroines and beacons of literature. But so, at the dark end of things, is Muriel: why was I so drawn and even entertained to learn what she'd do next? Both characters live on in the mind long after the books are read. And now I see why from Mantel's own quirky chronicle in Giving Up the Ghost, which pinpoints the phantasmal horror of her life when at the age of seven she encounters 'a space occupied by nothing' of colossal force in the back garden and occupies her. 'Something intangible had come for me, to try its luck: some formless, borderless evil, that came to try to make me despair'.

Yet beyond this, there's brightness and plenty of grim humour even when Mantel encapsulates the worst moments of her battle to be diagnosed with the endometriosis that blights her life. And it's taken the success of Wolf Hall to make us catch up with earlier masterpieces lurking in the bookshops. How many other truly great writers are out there, undiscovered by the vaguely literary like us who don't often read the book reviews? Lucky Jasper Rees got to talk to her for this week's big Arts Desk interview. So onwards to the history lessons.

Thursday 25 February 2010


My BBCSO students were rather more freaked out than I intended them to be when I played and showed them sequences from Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel, preparing for tonight's performance of its sister work the Third Symphony conducted by Vedernikov. I'm still as baffled as anyone as to where this fascination with the dark world, and Prokofiev's ability to handle it 'subcutaneously' (as my much-missed colleague Christopher Palmer put it), might have come from.

There's little clue in diaries or letters, only a rather funny entry for 30 November 1921 when SSP goes to one of batty Nina Koshetz's seances. He meets her spirit guide Uchshikay from the fifth century AD, whom Koshetz tells him was reincarnated as Schumann ('At this I asked...why so evidently enlightened an individual as Uchshikay should have been later incarnated in the body of so manifestly unenlightened a person as Schumann?'). There's a bit of a twist to all the sarcasm: cocky Sergey tells Uchshikay:

'I do not wish to hear you, because the world I see before my eyes is clear and bright enough for me not to risk throwing myself into the abyss of doubt that is spiritualism'. This elicited an astounding response: 'Sergey, you do not yet feel me, but I say to you, in the words of your poet [Pushkin]: "Remember me!" '. With that the seance ended, and I went home deeply stirred, mainly on account of this last utterance. Everything that preceded it could be discounted, but the beauty of this phrase stays with me, an incontestable treasure!

So maybe there was something of Sergey and Nina in the embattled relationship between The Fiery Angel's possessed Renata and hapless suitor Ruprecht. Anyway, it was the spirit-knocking scene which really stunned the students into silence, and I make no apology for equating the symphony directly with the opera; Prokofiev's later remark about disassociating the orchestral themes from their operatic context was a bluff to the Soviets.

We ended with the convent orgy, pictured above in the Jones production for La Monnaie, which I never got to see as I was chucking up from food poisoning on the morning I was due to take the train to Brussels. The top still is from that amazing Polish film about hysteria in a nunnery, Mother Joan of the Angels. This you should see if you feel strong enough.

I asked Robert Carsen if he got the idea for the final scene of Poulenc's Carmelites from the above image, but he hadn't seen the film and a group of prostrate nuns is, apparently, a regular enough phenomenon.

David Freeman's Kirov Fiery Angel, which travelled to London after astonishing the post-Soviet crowds with its nudity, wears well enough, especially in the use of white-powdered acrobats as demons. The DVD has all you could wish from Gorchakova and Leiferkus, but here's a whistlestop tour with a different cast. The music is the black sabbath which accompanies Ruprecht's visit to the disinigenuous necromancer Agrippa von Nettesheim and which later recurs as the climax of the ultimate mayhem. It serves here as the finale to the Third Symphony, which so astonished Richter in that context that he wrote: 'Grandiose masses gape and topple over - the end of the universe'.

Catch tonight's concert at the Barbican if you can, preferably, or on Radio 3 live at 7pm. I can't, as I'm back at the Royal Opera to chat with Andrew McGregor about that Gambler of genius for R3, due for broadcast some time in May. I'll have to catch up on the Listen Again facility. There's still time, by the way, to hear the last BBCSO concert of Janacek, Korngold and Martinu on the R3 iPlayer.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Chopin: 200 already

It's official, according to the UK Chopin Society: the baptismal register indicates we ought to have celebrated the master's birthday yesterday, not on 1 March. Well, Zimerman certainly did, though the vanitas vanitatum of the gaping hordes made it a less than spiritual occasion, as I've bad-temperedly noted for the Arts Desk.

The problem was that I couldn't get Elisabeth Leonskaja's November programme featuring the same towering sonatas - or at least the half of it I heard - out of my head. I use the phrase 'recital as sacred rite' again, and I don't care: not since Richter in Chichester Cathedral have I experienced such depths from a single instrument. Another Russian with a sense of profound philosophy was Emil Gilels. Here he is in what I may go overboard and declare as the most ineffable piano-sonata slow movement of all time, the Largo from Chopin's No. 3.

Louis Lortie told me in our November interview that the sonata is the one that pianists discuss and compare notes about the most. And I can see why. That Largo is also the bedrock of John Neumeier's amazingly good choreography of Chopin piano pieces and concertos, La Dame aux Camelias. I do recommend that you invest in the Opus Arte film of the Paris Opera production and take a look at Alessandra Ferri in unembeddable YouTube excerpts (especially as Ferri is partnered by the handsomest of male dancers, and possibly the most beautiful man in the world, Roberto Bolle). In the meantime, here's a chopped up minute or so of the riveting Agnes Letestu and Stephane Bullion.

It's always an amazing experience to hear Verdi's operatic treatment of the camellia-lady's plight in La traviata well done, and Sunday evening's Chelsea Opera Group concert performance yielded much alongside the more-hits-than-misses spectacle of veteran diva Nelly Miricioiu professionally pacing herself as Violetta in the wake of a heavy cold. Romanian tenor Cosmin Ifrim and Gianluca Marciano, conducting the wonderfully engaged COG orchestra, were revelatory. Read more about it once again over at the Arts Desk.

Later: delighted to find on YouTube a testament to what made Ifrim's 'Parigi, o cara' Sunday evening's true moment of grace. Quite some breath control; and on Sunday he wasn't singing even the slightest bit sharp. The Violetta here is good, too. Shame the audience coughs more than she does.

Saturday 20 February 2010

The path to La Stupenda

News of Kathryn Grayson's death at the age of 88 brought with it a flash of recognition. Not that I think I've seen any of her films, in spite of a fondness for Hollywood musicals; even Kiss Me, Kate I only caught in bits on the telly years ago. Yet thanks again to La Cieca's coverage on Parterre, I've been able to pinpoint what I think it was caught my mother's imagination and led me to the great Joan Sutherland.

She'd seen the Bell Song from Lakme performed in some film or other; she never could remember which, or who sang it. So we searched Sutton Record Library and found it on a celebrated LP, The World of Joan Sutherland. I was hooked; you can take that old 'my mother made me a...' line if you like, but I was ripe for operatic camp anyway.

And there, on Parterre, is this YouTube sequence of Grayson in It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), singing the entire Bell Song in a raj setting not devoid of imagination, and in French. Rather well, too.

Ma still thinks the one she saw would have been even earlier than that, but unless anyone can come up with an alternative, let's believe that this was the fountainhead.

PS - 25/2: Will HAS come up with that alternative - Lily Pons in the 1935 film I Dream Too Much. She, of course, is the kosher operatic diva, and one of the first really svelte ones at that, but her sense of pitch isn't quite up to pretty Kathryn's. Note that they shipped in a few genivine 'Indoos for the occasion.

Review of last night's 'Hollywood concerto' and the much more important Martinu Fourth is now up and running on The Arts Desk. What made me really happy was that in the very diverse audience for my talk sat a glamorous street dancer called Imelda who'd never been to a concert before, and who loved every minute of the concert. A heaven-sent punter.

Friday 19 February 2010

Back to Bohuslav

Well, we've hardly been in a desert of live music since the second instalment of the BBC Symphony/Belohlavek Martinu symphonies series at the Barbican, but I am indeed excited about the return. I do so love that cat shot, courtesy of the Bohuslav Martinu Archive in Policka, which I'm going to see, hurrah, next month. Anyway, tonight's concert features the symphony closest to my heart, the Fourth, by virtue of that slow movement which I got some stick for describing on Building a Library as the greatest since the one in Sibelius Four. But I believe that more than ever and I'm looking forward to hearing it again live (the only other occasion being the same team in the Martinu weekend some years back).

A Great Man phoned me yesterday out of the blue for a chat about Martinu (it has been impressed upon me that not all should be divulged on a blog, but I can't contain my interest entirely, so forgive any coyness). We talked about the correspondence between what Martinu put on the printed page and what he heard in his head, about Czech orchestras and Czech music, 'driving lessons' with the infinitely generous Sir Charles, and about how Martinu is so obviously one of the greats; forgive me if I still keep Korngold, also featured tonight, in category 2.

Hint about the chat: this dream by Piero della Francesca, which I saw in Arezzo on my first trip to Italy in 1982, will be coming to Albertopolis in the Summer.

Enough; do say hello if you come to my talk before the concert at 6pm this evening in the Barbican's Fountain Room. The main event goes out live on Radio 3 at 7pm*. I'm told it's virtually sold out; such is the pace of the Martinu renaissance.

Just a footnote on A Single Man, which we finally saw last night: admired the far from vacuous cinematography, respected Firth's and Moore's performances, was pleased at the sensual presentation of young flesh, but felt next to nothing for the characters. The other problem is that I'm so hypnotised by every jewel-like sentence of Hilary Mantel at the moment, as I work my way through her magnificent oeuvre, that what was read of Isherwood's book sounded flat and self-conscious. And before walking in the pouring rain to the Odeon Kensington I dropped in to Kensington Library - only to find that they've cleared out two thirds of their scores, leaving gaping holes on the shelves (so it's not even a space thing). This is happening all the time in libraries throughout London, but that doesn't make it any the less a shock and a disgrace.

*apparently not - despite the fact that the uncomfortable 7pm start has always signalled a live broadcast, this one turned out to be shunted to this coming Monday.

Thursday 18 February 2010

Fantasy garden

Most blooms remain indoors at this time of year. It's the only season when I'm reduced to buying cut flowers - except for peonies in June - and while I wait for the Banja Lukas to pop up in the soil outside, these tulips have lasted well as complement to Ruthie's 'fantasy garden'. They started out, all tight and close, over a week ago like this.

Yesterday, after endless stretches of drear and damp, the sun came out. It still wasn't like those false harbingers of spring we usually get around mid-February, but as I'd seen precious little hint of bloom or bud, other than this magnolia outside the Marshalsea church at the start of the year

I took an hour off work and cycled around in search of snowdrops. I found clusters on a few graves in an otherwise bleak, scrubby looking Brompton Cemetery, just before the balls of a redoubtable officer

and then went on to Chelsea Physic Garden, which promised to be a galanthophile's paradise but wasn't. Even so, there was the odd clump in the woodland zone

and it was good to see what else might flourish. The hellebores are out in force, and the Chinese Winter Sweet (Chimonanthus praecox) is spreading a heavenly sent from its waxy yellow flowers, caught in the late afternoon sun.

Along the eastern walled garden border where later the echiums wax gigantic, new bracts are springing from a Madeiran visitor, Melanoselenum decipiens.

Sub-tropical it may seem, but further along the fruit trees still need shielding from the cold.

In short, we're still in the grip of that extended winter which is the subject of Ostrovsky's - and subsequently Rimsky-Korsakov's - 'spring fairy tale' The Snow Maiden (Snegurochka). Daughter of Frost and Spring Beauty, the otherworldly girl will melt when touched by love and the sun's rays. Here she is as portrayed by the great Nezhdanova.

I put together a selection of Arkhipova singing shepherd Lel's soulful songs for the students on Monday, and I posted another YouTube track on The Arts Desk but I also came across Elizaveta Shumskaya, a bright soprano I'd never heard before, in Snegurochka's first aria. Quite a discovery.

Monday 15 February 2010

A horde of old Cossacks

Funny the classics I've missed out on since the glorious year of Russian studies back in 1982 (had I done it in first year at university, I'd unquestionably have changed to a Russian degree course - my only big regret in life). Last year, writing on the Beethoven violin and piano sonatas for Aldeburgh, I finally caught up with Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata and was shaken to the core. Now it's Janacek time again, and in preparing something on the Russophilia of the master for ENO's programme on the new production of Katya Kabanova, I thought it was time to read Gogol's Taras Bulba, that 'colossal portrait in a small frame' as Belinsky described it of the wild southern Cossacks.

So what is it, 'one of the ten greatest books of all time' (as if one would trust that homophobe Hemingway) or a 'dreadful..."colourful romance" ' from which, Nabokov thought, Gogol was rescued in the nick of time? Well, I guess I'd rather dash through Taras Bulba than plough my way through Dead Souls a third time, for all its top-notch comic moments. Maybe the evocation of the barbaric Ukraine in the 16th-17th centuries is a fantasy, but what a vivid and engaging fantasy! Repin's marvellous pictures, taken from studies of Cossacks he knew, are certainly on a par (above is one of several celebrated representations of 'the Zaporozhye Cossacks writing an insulting letter to the Turkish Sultan').

How one comes to feel for the veteran commander with his sly knowledge of Horace and his two sons, fated from the first. Do we blame the spirit of the age for the way they had to live? In a half-interesting, half-infuriating introduction to the Modern Library edition, Robert D. Kaplan summarises well:

The great divisions in Gogol's Taras Bulba are those of civilizations: the Eastern Orthodox Dnieper Cossacks are pitted against the Catholic Poles and the Muslim Turks and Tatars. This is a world so coarse, and so unreceptive to enlightenment, that freedom means only the freedom to express oneself through a stultifying yet energizing group identity - a sad commonplace in many parts of the world today, where dictatorships are crumbling and real democracy is weak or nonexistent. In such places, a fury burns that is beyond the cultivated bourgeois imagination. Gogol communicates this fury brilliantly.

Alas, Kaplan has to go and spoil it all by comparing America's 'robust passion' with the 'effete, bureaucratic and defeatist' policies of Europe which, he says, are in for a horrible shock from the eastern hordes. Well, whatever the correspondences with today, Taras Bulba is a cracking good read, full of sparkling detail and loving evocation of the Steppes.

Janacek's tone poem, marvellous on its own terms, gives you little idea of what to expect from Gogol other than the euphoric Slavic ideal at the end. I was knocked for six by Neumann's recording with the Czech Philharmonic, having been too slavishly bound to Mackerras. The Sinfonietta on the same CD has some of the most hallucinatory, howling horn playing I've ever heard. Belatedly, I see that Jurowski's fabulous LPO programme on Saturday, which I'd singled out by virtue of another chance - post-Rattle - to hear Suk's Asrael Symphony, actually begins with Taras Bulba. That, if I remember correctly, will be the first time I've ever heard it in a concert hall. Great Vladimir, canny programmer ever, continues a mini Gogolfest next Thursday with Shostakovich's unfinished Gamblers plural - in which a superb Russian line-up will be part-directed by our friend from the Arcola Jenufa and the RSAMD War and Peace Irina Brown - and his suite from The Nose.

Finally, while we're on the subject of implacable hatreds, and Gogol's questioning of whether any tenderness can flourish in such societies, don't fail to hear Chandos's CD issue of MacMillan's The Sacrifice. I'll say no more about its circumstances; it's all the more powerful if you don't know what's about to hit you.

J MacM and his librettist Michael Symmonds Roberts were very happy with my booklet babble when I sent it for approval, so I take a childish pride in reproducing the composer's observation that 'the note is marvellous. It's just what we need.' The cynical might say, well, they would think that, wouldn't they? A pat on the back for the only opera of the last 20 years, post-Nixon in China , I reckon will be around for a very long time was hardly likely to displease. But I'm sincere - and others are welcome to challenge. Marc Rochester, writing in the International Record Review, asked whether I was 'over-egging the cake' when I compared MacMillan's word-setting to Britten's. And came up with the answer: 'Not a bit of it. The Sacrifice is an undoubted classic of our time and a worthy successor to the great Britten operas of the last century'. Good - it's not just me, then.

Sunday 14 February 2010


Curiously, the Radio 3 Messageboard buzz about yesterday's Building a Library on the complete Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet - available to hear on iPlayer for the next six days - tends to have paid more attention to my two attempts to evoke the latest Royal Ballet DVD than to the ultimate CD recommendation (I've removed it in case you want to listen without knowing); they're all hurrying to find the latest filmed incarnation of the MacMillan choreography. Well, much as everyone seems to love the ballet, everyone loves Carlos Acosta too, and he certainly sparks with the fast-developing Juliet of Tamara Rojo, mobile of face as well as body. I couldn't find the stunning fight-tumble with handsome Thiago Soares's imperious Tybalt on YouTube, but the love-dance will certainly do. You'll need to click into the YouTube site to get the full screen width.

Many will say, why bother, when the classic Fonteyn/Nureyev partnership can be tracked down (though it's not currently available)? I'd say, for the close-ups, the unsurpassable company work of the Royal Ballet in 2008, and Boris Gruzin's pacing of the score. I did track down an alternative balcony scene, where the ramshackle sets and the blurry film can't disguise Nureyev's genius:

I'd watched the Acosta/Rojo Romeo and Juliet on DVD alongside a Scala film for a review in the March issue of the BBC Music Magazine. For the programme, I also investigated Lavrovsky's total mess of a 1956 film, worth seeing for the incarnation of 44 year old Ulanova's featherlight Juliet, and several others which I didn't have time to mention. Nureyev's choreography for Paris is stuffed full of Shakespearean detail, but doesn't allow for much stillness or poetry. The second act seems out of synch, since all the events described in the music happen a minute or so later in the action. You can't mess that much with Prokofiev's impeccable dramaturgical timing.

The Teatro alla Scala's show, though, I did warm to - the conventionally handsome Frigerio sets trump the now rather dated Georgiadis designs at Covent Garden. And while the corps is looser than its London counterpart, the Romeo and Juliet here are as personable as any. Alessandra Ferri, like Fonteyn and Ulanova, can still convince as a teenager; Angel Corella is a loveable Romeo, flashing lovely white teeth in the earlier scenes and living the desperation of the bereaved lover in the vault better even than Acosta and Nureyev. So very much worth seeing this clip of his death scene.

Well, I'm about to leave Prokofiev alone for a bit in order to turn joyfully back to Martinu and Janacek, though the week after next I'm back at the Royal Opera in the BBC box preparing for the broadcast of The Gambler, which apparently won't happen until May. I loved every minute of Richard Jones's production - but then I would, wouldn't I? For what I hope is a reasoned account, see my Arts Desk review with a glimpse of the extraordinary designs in three production photographs. I'd like to use a few more here, but the bizarre blog ban of the press office - opera, please note, not ballet - still pertains. This is the only arts institution I've so far encountered to act in such a way.

Some of my other colleagues in Apollo have written it up all too predictably: hard-working show, shame about the music. Prokofiev's retort in 1929 is dedicated to them: 'when they say there are no melodies in The Gambler, this isn't amusing but stupid, for I think that even the antimusical ears of these gentlemen will end by finding them'. Three cheers for forthright Sergey Sergeyevich. I couldn't resist reproducing here my favourite photograph of him in his jaunty youth - in 1915, in fact, the year he was working hard on the first version of The Gambler. Serge Jnr kindly sent me the image - credit of course to the Prokofiev/ff family - and agrees that it's the best.

Anyway, back to the ephemeral press. Casual accusations of second-rateness I found a bit more shocking. But never mind: Ed Seckerson understands both his Prokofiev and genius Jones, while I loved the flavour of Fiona Maddocks's Observer review. With style-aware, very literate writers like these around, such off-centre shows should thrive.

Just in case you still waver about dipping your toes in hot water, here's a clip of the climactic roulette game from a Berlin production directed by the maverick Russian Dmitry Tcherniakov. Misha Didyk sings Alexey, Barenboim conducts (a tad sluggishly). Looks intriguing (the DVD release passed me by completely - time to catch up).

Talking of style, we're off this damp and dreary Valentine's Day afternoon to see A Single Man, following a rave from friends and Gavin Plumley's riposte to Peter Bradshaw and his ilk who find it cold and vacuous.

Thursday 11 February 2010

Arkhipova bows out

That wicked site Parterre does have its uses: only entries after the most appalling Anglophobic attack on the totally brilliant Christopher Purves - whose consummate Glyndebourne Falstaff I've just been relishing again on the new DVD release - La Cieca breaks the news (to me, at any rate) of Russian mezzodiva Irina Arkhipova's death at the age of 85.

Well, she was a great artist, on a par with the underrated Dolukhanova and Obraztsova (whom I've had the privilege of seeing thrice on stage). Friends in Moscow told me she was still singing sublimely on her 70th birthday. I'm also reminded of my dear late friend Martin Zam, who was taken by his pharmacist father to see Chaliapin in a Moscow Boris Godunov and who died in his 90s; his favourite track was Arkhipova singing 'The Field of the Dead' from Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky. That, for him, summed up the tragedy of the country he lost. Polina's 'sad song about Russia' - as our Chantraine teacher used to call our choreography - will have to do here instead. And, on a lesser level of Tchaikovskyan inspiration, but still very stylishly done, here's Joan's farewell to the countryside from his Maid of Orleans.

Faites vos jeux

I'll wager my precious Prokofiev collection that The Gambler at the Royal Opera, opening tonight, can't fail to be a surefire hit. My esteemed colleague Anthony Phillips, who was at the final rehearsal, wrote that he hadn't enjoyed himself so much at the theatre in years. Even the difficult-to-set-up first act apparently flew by. And my own punters at the City Lit were well and truly hooked by the third of our five classes.

There are intelligent previews here: in an interview with an unusually forthcoming Richard Jones on classicalsource and in a Guardian article by Tom Service which, uniquely, gets all its facts right and captures a real flavour. I can't wait.

In the meantime, a reminder that you can catch my Building a Library on the complete Romeo and Juliet this Saturday morning (CD Review, Radio 3, 9.30am, and thereafter on the iplayer for a week). Of course trying to cover the 52 numbers in 45 minutes was always going to be a headache; and sadly my anticipated self-editing was realised - two piquant examples of the second mandolin dance and another excerpt had to be shorn.

Yet what a pleasure to be working with a Radio 3 producer, Kevin Bee, who really knows his stuff and can crack a joke or two to keep it all buoyant. Had he needed to take editorial decisions of his own over what we recorded, I'd have been in safe hands. So let's hear it for these hard-worked producers. Some of them think, and write the scripts, for certain presenters, who then take all the credit.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

What a widow!*

I've never posted twice before in the same day, but further to my tiny Dankworth homage below, some news from Sebastian Scotney of the LondonJazz site made me so jolly. Having already performed with her two children at a 40th anniversary concert on the night of Johnny Dankworth's death, Cleo Laine has once again insisted that the show must go on at Pinner's Parish Church this Saturday.

It's against my own interests, as I don't know if I can free up that evening to go and by then all tickets will be sold, but Sebastian advertises the event, with a link, here.

I combed YouTube looking for my favourite track from the 1957 album, 'Happiness is just a thing called Joe' - bit close to the bone, if you substitute 'John' for 'Joe' - and found this film of Cleo and Johnny in 1965, which will certainly do.

*The title, by the way, of a 1930 film starring and produced by Gloria Swanson. She asked Prokofiev to write the music; he declined, and the honour passed to Vincent Youmans of 'Tea for Two' fame. All this revealed in letters at the Serge Prokofiev Archive.

Nasty masculine habits

It's a messy man's world in Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art, which I finally caught up with a few weeks back at the National Theatre. Grubby, wildly entertaining but self-repeating Wystan Auden (Richard Griffiths, pictured above for the NT by Johan Persson) welcomes the buttoned-up Britten (Alex Jennings) back into his life as each unknowingly reaches the end. Britten is working on Death in Venice and the boy issue rears its head, guaranteeing the public's prurient interest.

That meeting never took place, but it's a good premise for a play. Surely, though, somewhere along the creative process Bennett lost faith and was maybe advised that this elegant double act would need more culture and knowledge than the audience might possess. So it's wrapped up in a self-referential luvviefest as the play about Auden, Britten and their mutual biographer Humphrey Carpenter goes into rehearsal. In the early stages, this provides a lot of quick-fire laughs, not to mention the bizarre moments when rotund Fitz/Griffiths is forced to don a wedding-cake-left-out-in-the-rain rubber Auden mask to promote resemblance. Jennings, of course, needs less excuse to at least suggest his genius's phiz.

The trouble is that whenever Bennett's subject starts getting serious, he turns away. I began to be hooked and moved by Jennings' portrayal of Britten's locked-in anguish half way through the second act, but then we were back to the jokey world of the the-atre. Thank goodness Bennett has a lot more wit and wisdom than Stoppard, with all his toe-curling attempts to be clever and make little England feel it's clever too. But the end is a disaster: the wonderful Frances de la Tour as stage manager Kay tells us how someone - ie woman - always gets left out, and then there's this hideous cap-doffing to the National. Hytner and Bennett can't have their cake and eat it, complaining about elitism and exclusion and then congratulating themselves on their own little world. A shame, because there's a good two-hander in here, full of pithy comments on each man's art. That said, everyone else, including Adrian Scarborough as Donald/Carpenter and Stephen Wight as rent boy Stewart (pictured with Griffiths below), does take the actor's craft to its highest level.

I almost hesitate to mention the fact, since gender ought to be irrelevant but sadly still isn't, but last week saw a woman's triumph in a man's world. All the talk was of Barenboim's Beethoven/Schoenberg, which I certainly enjoyed, and of Osmo Vanska's Sibelius cycle, which I didn't. On Sunday Ashkenazy made sensitive work of Elgar's First Symphony with the Philharmonia. But the best concert of the clutch I attended was easily the one conducted by Susanna Malkki (pictured below by Tanja Ahola) at the Barbican.

The Arts Desk review of that BBC Symphony Orchestra spectacular is here; and what a totally satisying programme it was. Yesterday I had a chance, at Maida Vale, to hear the recording of Ravel's La Valse again (broadcast is set for later this month). So controlled yet playful, sensuous yet brutal; and the BBCSO sounds like the Berlin Philharmonic. What is it about Ravel that brings out the best in these northern conductors? I'd put Malkki's interpretation on a par with what Esa-Pekka Salonen did with the complete Ma mere l'oye and Bolero at the Proms. And I repeat, I don't think there has ever been a more ravishing orchestrator than Ravel in the history of music. Discuss.

On a par was a trip to Birmingham the following Tuesday - £110 day return after 3pm, thanks Virgin and apologies CBSO - to talk about Strauss's Alpensinfonie. Hence the wind-machine, thundersheet and Wagner tuba above, snapped while I was waiting for a souncheck. Again, there's an Arts Desk review of Andris Nelsons's performance, so I won't repeat myself, but it does seem miraculous, or just good judgement, that the CBSO has a third top-notch conductor, and such a naturally enthusiastic communicator. Here he is pictured by Richard Battye.

Mind you, there was all the difference in the world between Nelsons's rare bout of wild flailing on Strauss's Alpine summit, all for sweep and drive, and the preposterous ducking and diving of Osmo Vanska. My friend Cally got straight to the heart of what was wrong with his Sibelius Five: he bullies individuals rather than drawing the whole orchestra in with him. That means the whole falls into fussy details, some passages go awry (the deliberately out-of-synch meandering strings in the first movement fell into synch too soon) and climaxes don't really work. I'm not alone in feeling this, but I am in a minority. And I'm afraid it bears out the unspeakable epithet attached to Vanska by another distinguished Finn.

Sunday 7 February 2010

In the name of Johnny...

...keep up the inspiring work, you other Dankworth-Laines. Rather mitigating my sadness at the news of the great jazzman's death at the age of 82 - read John Fordham's Guardian obit* for more chapter and verse - was the startling intelligence that widow Cleo, who must be around the same age, was caught singing a couple of months ago. And as it's the sort of voice which never seems to have substantially altered over 60 years of song, I can well imagine the results.

This is all quite a coincidence, because only a couple of weeks ago I was hunting down a CD version of an old MGM album we wore out in the Dundas Street flat during our second year at Edinburgh University. And there it was, on an Avid Jazz two-CD set with two 1950s albums by Johnny Dankworth, Journey into Jazz and 5 Steps to Dankworth.

He does some curious things in homage to his many inspirations, as a rather flat-voiced narrator but a brilliant pasticheur of various jazz styles. Buy your copy here; it's less than £4.

Anyway, I sent another copy to below-mentioned Mary, now in Washington DC. She'd bought the LP for a quid or so back in 1981 but had thrown it out when it buckled on a windowsill in her Rome flat. The sound ain't great, but Cleo is Ella's free and easy, long-breathed equal in 'Happiness is just a thing called Joe', and how I laughed to recall how we all did the same at the blues line 'I love my man like a schoolboy loves his pie'. We also wore out Edna, aka Edith Piaf, but that LP has always been more easily replaceable.

*which I now see has one of the most pertinent analogies between symphonic music and jazz I've read. JD, the extent of whose educational work I'd never realised, described symphonies as the great novels of an era, jazz as its buzzy, snapshot journalism.

Friday 5 February 2010

Lucia's 'celestial voice'

I refer not to the unearthly twitterings of Donizetti's coloratura heroine, but rather to the instrument he originally thought of using to give her a further otherworldly dimension. A glass harmonica, exactly like Benjamin Franklin's pictured above*, was one star in ENO's revival of Lucia di Lammermoor last night. The others were that increasingly great Italianate tenor, wee Barry Banks; the sets by Charles Edwards; and the costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel. More on that, perhaps over-flippantly and with apologies for any disrespect to the fitfully inspired pisseur of Bergamo, in my Arts Desk review.

There was a detailed and as always entertaining programme article on the opera's genesis by Roger Parker. He told us how, following the completion of Lucia in 15 days, the glass harmonica player at the Teatro San Carlo turned out to be mired in litigation with the opera house management, prophetically enough because a flute had replaced his much ghostlier sounds in some ballet or other. So Donizetti did just that himself as a kind of insurance policy before the first performance, thereby setting a precedent for countless other mad scenes with flute, not least Mad Margaret's spoof in Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore and the one for Peter Pears as Thisbe parodying Sutherland in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The original version of Lucia's Mad Scene is, of course, much stranger and more poignant than the one we always heard until recently. It doesn't even have the catch-me-if-you-can duetting between voice and instrument, apparently added long after Donizetti's death for Nellie Melba.

Who else wrote for this singular forerunner of the celesta? Mozart, Glinka, Saint-Saens for his Carnival Aquarium and Strauss when the Empress acquires a shadow in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Nowhere does it sound spookier than adorning Donizetti's often earthbound music.

It features in a far more gripping vocal performance of the Mad Scene than the one we saw last night. Dramatically, that could have been powerful, with the traumatised Lucia wandering the empty stage, but Anna Christy didn't have an ounce of Natalie Dessay's intensity. I've only once been caught up by the unfortunate bride of Lammermoor's predicament on stage - back in the early 1980s, when a Canadian soprano called Pamela Myers, following a much-praised Ashley Putnam, reduced us all to tears at Scottish Opera.

Wish I'd been at what I'm guessing is the Met for Dessay's tour de force (and isn't that dishy Mariusz Kwiecien as the wicked brother?). The film of the whole thing is divided into three parts on YouTube, in a performing edition which mingles original and celebrated revision. I recommend you watch it all, but here's the cabaletta, which features the glass harmonica right at the beginning.

*Aren't these the sort of things we should expect to see displayed - and demonstrated - in set-ups like the V&A's threatened collection of musical instruments? The point being that they should be played, not kept behind glass cases as they are now. The V&A needs to rehouse its collection with a curator who cares.

Monday 1 February 2010

Three juicy oranges

All Prokofiev's, of course, and it's been a real pleasure to concentrate on the main man again. Now that War and Peace and all the background work on The Gambler are done and dusted for the time being, I can settle back into my eight or so complete Romeo and Juliets for Radio 3's Building a Library (the programme is scheduled for 13 February).

As I think I mentioned earlier, we're having more of a non-stop Prokofiev feast in the first few months of the year than ever happened for the 50th anniversary. First came The Snow Queen, that oddly conventional and unvaried Corder take on chunks of The Stone Flower mixed in - rather well - with bits of War and Peace, Betrothal in a Monastery and the Fifth Symphony. I rather anticipated that Kenneth MacMillan's unsinkable Royal Ballet Romeo and Juliet would yet again knock it into a cocked hat, and it did, by virtue of the careful attention to detail and the adventurous casting that continue to inform the revivals. Nothing, it seemed, was going to cap the DVD with Acosta - out of action currently, alas - and Tamara Rojo

where the fight scene with Thiago Soares's hunky Tybalt is so dangerous you fear they'll fall off the stage. Indeed, the Romeo I saw this time round, Edward Watson, was poetic and dreamy, as photographed below by Dee Conway, but not quite on the edge enough.

Much as I've loved Leanne Benjamin's Cinderella and other roles, she couldn't quite match Rojo, Ferri and Fonteyn for sheer charisma. It's still striking, though, how bold MacMillan is with the flinging around of bodies in the final scene. This hits home painfully if you watch the boyish-desperate Angel Corella with the still-youthful Ferri in the Scala DVD. Compared to that, the stateliness of Lavrovsky's choreography in a terrible Soviet film only worth watching for Ulanova seems tame indeed.

Anyway, the Royal Ballet is still at the top of its game. I was delighted to see its inspiring director, Dame Monica Mason - who's always there before every performance and, I'm told, at rehearsals too - sitting in the audience when I gave my Gambler talk at the Insight Evening last Thursday. So, too, were Elaine Padmore, Tony Hall and many other big cheeses in the Royal Opera admin. The very friendly Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts was there, too, ready to sing excerpts later with Elisabeth Meister and superb piano accompaniment from assistant conductor Christopher Willis. Jeffrey was an outstanding Alexey in the top-notch Grange Park production of The Gambler. Here he is in two photos by Alastair Muir of that production so brilliantly designed and directed by David Fielding. In the first pic he's desperate to please Katherine Rohrer's capricious Polina.

Next he's seen breaking the bank at the Roulettenburg casino, a scene which can't fail to thrill if it's done with all the wacky detail Prokofiev wants:

Jeffrey is to play the hypochondriacal prince in The Love for Three Oranges at Grange Park this summer. At Covent Garden, he's merely covering the role of Alexey, and Roberto Sacca is going to have to be exceptional to match him - especially as the decision's been taken to perform the opera in English.

That I can understand, even if I'm selfishly a bit disappointed. Prokofiev's dramaturgy moves at such a lick that if the audience has its eyes glued to the supertitles, it's going to miss a lot of the stage action - and given that Richard Jones, the ideal man for the job, is directing, there's bound to be plenty of that. Tony Pappano, on the panel chaired by Kevin Rainey following my talk, said that he wasn't too concerned about losing the Russian. The language, he said, is horizontal - demonstrating with Lensky's 'kuda, kuda vi udalilis' from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin - while so much of Prokofiev's motoric score is vertical, and the two don't always match. Jones, to whom I'm indebted for asking that I took part, voiced his worries about setting it all up in the tricky, talky first two acts; but we agree with Prokofiev that it all goes in a line towards the thrilling roulette scene, one of his greatest, and the thorny denouement. He ended simply by saying that 'The Gambler has a very original soul and it wants to be put into the world'. I know what he means. Book now before all the top £50 seats go.

Pappano is, of course, a fascinating speaker, passionately engaged and clear even when trying to explain difficult things to an audience. That's why I breathe a sigh of relief that the BBC have signed him up to present three programmes on Italian opera in a large-scale counterblast to the car-crash telly of ITV's Popstar to Operastar.

Well, I wanted to end with a linking photo, of two fruits - Jones and myself - alongside the steaky Pappano, but alas the results have not been passed for publication. So another Zelig moment will have to remain in the private archive.