Sunday, 17 July 2011

Two cheers for three cantons

That oath on the Rütli pictured above by one-off Fuseli - there's a great Swiss-born artist for you - and ingeniously composed by Rossini for different choruses representing the ‘men of three cantons’ was an absolute highlight when I heard Chelsea Opera Group perform Guillaume Tell in concert last year and fell in love with it properly. At last night’s Prom,I wasn’t quite so convinced: the performance was undeniably sleeker and more nuanced, as you’d expect from a great animator-conductor like Antonio Pappano who’s been performing this operatic swansong with his Accademia di Santa Cecilia for quite a few years now. But it may well have been the alienating effect of being too far right and above the orchestra in the treacherous South Ken colosseum which made me feel far less involved than I had been in the Queen Elizabeth Hall with COG’s valiant effort. Yesterday I found myself longing instead for the way Verdi does the whole oath stuff so much better.

Several friends were a bit puzzled, too, that I’d flagged up Act 2 as far and away the greatest of the four. It didn’t sound it, and that may have had quite a lot to do with accomplished soprano Malin Bystrom – my pal Igor on The Arts Desk hits the nail on the head when he says that her 'buttery voice had a tendency to melt away just as you were beginning to believe in it' – not having a great rapport with star tenor John Osborn. I take it all back re the tenor: he was vocally even stronger than the compelling Mark Milhofer for COG, and cut through the Albert Hall oilslick effortlessly, but ultimately the voice wasn’t quite as singular nor the introspective moments as sensitive. As I think perhaps you can just about gauge from this soundclip of Milhofer singing 'Asile hereditaire' on YouTube - maybe from that very performance, it doesn't state the source.

The crucial solo of the fisherman Ruodi has also found its way onto YouTube from the COG performance, where Luciano Botelho's tenor made more of an impact than the perfectly good Celso Albelo last night. COG fixer Duncan Orr certainly knows where to find them.

Now I’m going to say something which, if I were on reviewing duty, would have me taken out and shot, and rightly (I’ve only ever left one event halfway through during my official critical years – a beyond-bad military band massacre of Grainger earlier this year – and incurred a stream of invective for saying so). What I decided to do at the end of Act 2 was to go home and listen to the rest on the brand-new Pappano recording.

Why? Artistically speaking, because I thought I’d rather hear Gerald Finley in Tell’s famous command to his apple-topped son, ‘Sois immobile’ than the grainy oldster Michele Pertusi, taking over for the Prom. That also meant I didn’t get the live sensation of Osborn’s top Cs and C sharps in the cabaletta to ‘Asile hereditaire’ (still think Milhoffer did a better job here, from the evidence of the recording). But I reckoned that from where I was sitting I wasn't getting the full impact of a live performance anyway.

Personal reasons: didn’t want to leave the diplo-mate pining at home - yeah, right - for longer than I had to, and needed to provision at Whole Foods (a rare luxury, and boy is it overpriced) before it shut at 10pm. How bourgeois and shallow can you get? Here's what I left behind - the Accademia looking sweepingly elegant and sounding better under Pappano than I've ever heard it. The photo is by Chris Christodoulou, whose professionalism leaves most others standing: for TAD, we get pictures in the interval, if possible, and at the end. Quite apart from all that, he's the best; the photo gallery of conductors which he kindly supplied to TAD last year shows his range superbly. Helps, I suppose, that the BBC Proms office is so well resourced.

Anyway, the serious listen to Acts 3 and 4 was postponed until this morning. And then, of course, I had a shock: on the recording, as in the Prom (or so the programme informed us), Pappano had cut the women’s woodwind-accompanied trio and the prayer in Act 4. Crazy: this is some of the most sensitive music in the score, and I see when I look back on the review that I loved the trio as a 'moment of stillness' in the COG performance. You get it all here, albeit in Italian, in Muti’s La Scala performance, Studer leading the way – and, no, it isn’t anything to do with the Italian version; these numbers were part of the French original.

Naughty Maestro P. Especially as the lovely Pat Bardon at the Prom would have been deprived of her finest moments. Never mind; this was certainly an event worthy of the first Proms weekend, and gave huge pleasure to everyone I spoke to.

The ending, of course, is unexpectedly glorious, and absolutely worthy of Turner's pioneering take on Switzerland from a quarter of a century earlier (that was Ruskin's visionary view of Lucerne's old walls above, by the way): a new dawn for 1829, except that Rossini had already sung his major operatic last...Here it is in the same Scala version.

One bonus to the COG experience: Pappano conducted all the ballet music, including the Act 1 Pas de Six better known in its Britten arrangement as the first of the Matinees Musicales but conducted here by Toscanini. Why the fryup picture I've no idea, but the sound is decent enough:

Think we ought to see Toscanini conducting a version of the Overture that begins with unison cellos, not the solo who so spellbindingly launched last night's prom. But stick with it for some extraordinary results later.

And That Galop sprang more lamb-like with Pappano. I have to end on a splendidly vulgar note with the sublime Australian yodeller Mary Schneider segue-ing naughtily between Tell, Carmen and Orpheus. Thanks to our friend Phillip Thomas for introducing us to this. Enjoy.


Susan Scheid said...

Well, philistine as I can sometimes be, I loved that you admitted to this:

Personal reasons: didn’t want to leave the diplo-mate pining at home - yeah, right - for longer than I had to, and needed to provision at Whole Foods (a rare luxury, and boy is it overpriced) before it shut at 10pm. How bourgeois and shallow can you get?

The Proms are nonetheless keeping you busy, are they not? May there be much to enjoy.

David said...

Yes, and tonight - having 'done' the Havergal Brian 'Gothic' Symphony, never again - I wish they weren't. But after a bit of a break from the Albert Hall I'm sure there will be better things around the corner.

On the philistine note, I guess you know the famous saying of CBS news anchorman Dan Rather: 'An intellectual snob is someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture and not think of The Lone Ranger'. Unfortunately most of us in this land never saw The Lone Ranger, so I feel that reference may end up going for nothing here...

J Vaughan said...

Apart from the Ballet Music and, of course, the Overture, this past week has brought me my first extensive exposure to this opera, and I have ENJOYED it!

As for the version performed in both Rome and Prom, reputedly the last to which Rossini gave his blessing, I have yet to read whether or not he made the changes he did out of purely-practical necessity, or rather he finally decided that this was the REAL way he wanted his opera to go after experiencing it in the theatre. I have started reading Prof Philip Gossett's large book, Divas And Scholars, in hope that, among other things, he might clarify this issue, and look forward to the notes accompanying the new recording, which I have just ordered from Amazon (it will not be released over here until next month).

Yet further, I can access the notes for the Prom from one of two people who also attended, both of whom enjoyed it much. One of them, Mr. Robert Hugill (, wished for a dramatic or spinto for Mathilde, though, if I understood him aright, a lighter sort of voice sang it at the premiere in 1829. Like yourself, I did not particularly care for the voice of the Prom Tell, though there could be no denying his dramatic commitment. Mr. Finley is a singer who, you may know, I admire, and have enjoyed him in brief clips from the recording. Another singer I have liked since, yes, his Pogner in the 2006 Edinburgh Meistersinger is Mr. M. Rose.

The final chorus of Act II sounded impressive from the recording when we heard it yesterday on CD Review, and I first thought of anticipations of Gounod, but later had to add Berlioz. One wonders if the brass fanfares from that chorus influenced the brass writing in the Requiem. I agree with you that the final chorus of the opera, which I heard for the first time yesterday, may lead to Wagner, but just maybe Gounod again as well.

Perhaps the amateur musicologist in me sometimes holds too much sway, but I would wish to have this performance because 1. it is based on the presumably-best current edition, 2. Maestro Pappano, as is his wont, seats his violins antiphonally in the historically-correct manner, but 3, he is an EXCEEDINGLY dynamic conductor, and I still like his Tristan, sweep or not and whatever flaws, if any (he still admittedly has some problems with his German), may be in Segnor Domingo's delivery of Tristan's vision of Isolde just before she arrives in Act III, as per the recent BAL feature on that opera (I must compare that passage with Herr Windgassen's in my other favourite Tristan, the 1966 Bayreuth).

I also was not inspired by the Gothic, and nearly passed on it for later for being sleepy. Perhaps nothing further need be said about that, though, like yourself, I seemed to detect some flatting of the choruses in at least one place.

The Prom to which I now look forward most is Elijah in late-August, though there could be other delights along the way, even this week.

With again many renewed thanks and best wishes,
J. V.

David said...

I still think a Prom is the perfect place to include all the music: and that ladies' trio, especially, is one of Rossini's loveliest inspirations. But I do agree that the Pappano recording is worth having, since he knows this score better than anyone alive now.

Finley I very much like in this, though I still think Iago and Sachs - better than expected - were steps too far for what is a warm lyric bass-baritone without much undertone or heft.

The final scene: to Gounod? Well, if it did inspire him, it didn't raise him to similar heights. But I do reckon the score has had a bigger influence on other composers than has usually been acknowledged. On which note, I'm rather obsessed at the moment by exactly how much Berlioz Verdi knew, how he adapted that knowledge to Italian ends and means in Macbeth and finally gave his full approval to similarly magical orchestration in the final act of Falstaff.

J Vaughan said...

I cannot claim to know any of Macbeth, though maybe it should be the first of Verdi's earlier operas to explore after I take on Forza. I am coming to know Falstaff, though, since I currently play it only once a year as part of my October Verdi cycle, may not be getting enough concentrated exposure. I admire the orchestration, but maybe should concentrate on the last act more this year in light of what you wrote above. I admit to playing the Chandos recording, which makes the work sound QUITE English! Maybe, as I did as per our discussion of Traviata, I should take on an Italian version with which to alternate between years. Which would you have it be should I decide to do that?

My latest Verdi acquisition is the Karajan Don Carlo, the BAL recommendation for Verdi's preferred Italian version. Despite his apparently-deserved reputation for smoothing too much out, he seems, to me at least, to be quite a vital romantic opera conductor, and his textures in Verdi seem transparent, again contrary to his reputation as I understand it.

Whether or not I start extensively exploring Rossini, I doubtless must also take on I think we all know what! Yet I would like whatever recording I might buy to be, if possible, both musicologically-sound and musically/dramatically-vital! I think there is also a Pappano recording, though it MIGHT pre-date the critical edition.

David said...

Italian Falstaff: for the conducting and the overall casting, the recent Abbado; the old Solti with Geraint Evans is pretty good, too. And there's also Toscanini...a piece I love to excess.

As I do Don Carlo, and that Karajan recording has perhaps the greatest line up of Italianate singers ever.

Your last remark eludes me, I'm afraid...

J Vaughan said...

Since Il Barbiere is Rossini's most famous opera, I thought "we all know what" would suffice. Mr. Hugill says that there is a Naxos recording in which the recitatives are accompanied by solo strings instead of Harpsichord, and that maybe such was done in Rossini's time. From the musicological end, that would have to put this performance on the list, though, if Maestro Pappano did it, was able to use the new edition, and had a suitable cast, it would have to be on there as well. What do you like here?

Since, of course, Maestro Toscanini knew Verdi, and I have and like his Otello, his Falstaff would also have to be near, or at, the top of my list, though I probably would wish to sample the Abbado as well, hoping, dare I say it, that he, like that famous earlier Maestro had he recorded in stereo and as Maestro Pappano does, seats his first and second violins to left and right respectively as would also have been done in Verdi's time!

And I forgot to respond to your comment about Mr. Finley. A former Wagnerian contact of mine VERY much preferred bass-baritone Sachses, and, as I did, preferred Mr. Bailey over Herr Fischer-Dieskau in those two recordings which came out at about the same time. Yes, Mr. Finley is more baritonal, and so MAYBE is Mr. Holl, though he may have JUST enough heft. I "cut my teeth" on the highly-regarded Kempe Meistersinger, but still find Herr Franz a rather-uninteresting Sachs, though the voice is certainly not disagreeable. Yet the rest of that cast is quite fine, and the atmosphere in the final scene, notably when Beckmesser is messing up Walther's song, is vivid in my opinion.

David said...

No strong opinions on Barbiere, JV - I only seem to have one recording here, the scholarly Chailly's with Marilyn Horne and a not very good tenor (Barbacini, I think, without looking). Though I do have plenty of 'Una voce poco fa's, and the film of Callas doing it in Paris is just amazing - she suddenly becomes the teenage girl who knows what she wants.

I believe the Royal Opera show conducted by Pappano when Joyce DiD was wheelchair-bound was released on DVD, and Florez is stunning in it.

James Way said...

Mary Schneider is unique! I'm surprised not more people have noted her "virtuosity". And the segues are certainly surprising...

Howard Lane said...

Never seen The Lone Ranger? God I must be older than I thought! Only promming on the Beeb so far but I was left speechless tonight by Andras Schiff's Bartok 3 with smiley Mark Elder and the Halle, but then I am an inveterate Bartok-o-mane. Janacek's Sinfonia was superficial by comparison. Even a concerto written down to his (no doubt highly accomplished) 2nd wife's level has so many layers, depths, twists and turns, as well as childlike fragments reminiscent of his 10 Easy Pieces and Hungarian Folksong arrangements.

I didn't agree with all of Elder's timings in the Sinfonia. It started too fast and came in too slow in the Allegretto. With such strong rhythmic pulses it's vital to get the tempo right. Perhaps he was true to the score, although Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra timings were played too slow for decades before a typo was discovered.

But for this drummer it's all in the performance when it comes to rhythms. Quite a few stomping 20th Century works were arranged by rock bands in the 70s, an excellent introduction for unschooled youthful ears. Keith Emerson particularly effectively used the Sinfonia, as well as Bernstein, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky. Another organ scholar Hugh Banton of Van der Graaf Generator quoted Ives, and Frank Zappa frequently referenced Stravinsky as well as Bartok 3.

The other 2 Bartok piano concertos are in this year's proms too but we are in France for the next fortnight so not sure if I will be able to catch both on iplayer. Steve Reich with the Ensemble Modern is not to be missed though, and in fact the 20th Century is particularly well represented this year. A lot to enjoy indeed. I'm still marvelling at the Bolero we saw last time.

David said...

Yes, I was there - in fact I invited your woman in the round-robin once I realised that I couldn't realistically deliver the 10 year old who was coming with me back to parents up in Tufnell Park and then come back and sit up and write the review.

Which I'm just about to start, so flick over to the Arts Desk in a couple of hours' time. Schiff indeed miraculous in the Bartok - that the Sinfonietta sounded lumpy was Elder's fault, not Janacek's, ditto Sibelius 7. Loved hearing the exquisite Scenes Historiques in concert for the first time.

Invitations - I'll keep on trying.

Howard Lane said...

Whoops! Yes, Sinfonietta of course.

She's more enthusiastic about opera when it comes to Janacek and less so about Bartok, although we did see a memorable Bluebeard some years ago, paired with Schoenberg I think.

We are back on the 3rd so no more promming until after then.

David Damant said...

Yes Callas was magnificent in the way she could act with her voice - which is the sort of acting that matters in opera: She was Rosina and at another pole she was Norma.

But Florez as Almaviva? Splendid voice but was he an important( later ambassador in England) count?? Or is that Mozart and not Rossini? Or is his Son of the Regiment voice excused since Almaviva in The Barber is a young ardent man?

David said...

Well, the fact is that very few tenors alive can sing all the ornamentations in Rossini as well as Florez - especially given that he does Almaviva's big final aria, 'Cessa di piu resistere', which was reworked in Cenerentola for the leading lady. I think we can forgive him anything for that, much as his voice palls for me after a bit.

Susan Scheid said...

I have much reading & listening to catch up on, but must right now say two things: I am reminded by your comment here and over at PD that when one listens to performances as one's occupation, it's not all sweetness and light, but like even the best of occupations, a mix of light and dark. Secondly, on the side of light, yesterday, I arrived back home to find my long-awaited CD of Illuminations, singer Robert Tear, awaiting me. I am listening to it now, and oh my god, so gorgeous. Thank you so much for this recommendation.

David Damant said...


I wonder if the fact that his voice can pall after a bit is part of the same point as the one I was trying to make, viz: he does not act very much with his voice, whether to be in character or to vary according to the stage of the drama.

David said...

But very little 'acting with the voice' is required in Barbiere, just agility. It's Rossini, not Mozart!