Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Berg and Chabrier: scum and froth

In Berg's case, I'm referring to the way downtrodden soldier Wozzeck is perceived by his crazy 'superiors' in what remains, perhaps, the 20th century's most shattering opera. And Chabrier's orchestral works, which I revisited as the most joyous corrective to trauma, may be frothy, but isn't that ability to lift rather than lower the spirits through melody and orchestration just as profund in its way?

As for the portraits above by Schoenberg and Manet, I couldn't resist a bit of quality artistry applied to musicians after what struck me as a rather bad Bryn portrait leading a blog entry elsewhere. I left a rudely jolly, or jolly rude, comment yesterday, wondering why musical portraiture is so poor these days (Adam Birtwistle's Glyndebourne stint being much the worst - at least this one's recognisable) but publication was not forthcoming, nor do I think it will be. Don't take it personally, Jessica, it's only my opinion, and apologies if I was treading on any personal sensitivities.

Praise-laden warnings were rife about Carrie 'A Doll's House' Cracknell's production of Wozzeck for English National Opera: this will bruise and amaze you, they said. And they were mostly right. Dominating all was Edward Gardner's finest run at the Coli since Peter Grimes and Der Rosenkavalier (if only because all three operas demand the ultimate in their different ways). A perfect guide through Berg's spider-web of unforgettable themes, Gardner also gave the most achingly late romantic expression to the tragedy: you were never allowed to forget how much came out of Strauss and Wagner. So many folk had related how the two unison crescendos after the murder shook them to the core, which they did, and the, yes, D minor summary pressed the tearduct button from the off.

Not everything about Cracknell's update worked for me, but all of it was thought through (photos by Tristram Kenton for ENO). There's nothing in Büchner's stunningly modern 1837 Woyzeck or in the opera which follows it so faithfully about the barracks boys seeing active service, but post-traumatic, post-Afghanistan stress disorder is a way of making Wozzeck's delusions instantly understandable. The child was too old for the final scene to have its full effect. Nor had there been  any outdoors for Wozzeck and friend Franz picking up sticks or for the climactic scenes by the lake with a rising moon. But these last had their own fearful impact.

Wozzeck no longer wades into a lake - or an immersion tank (Warner) or a vat of baked beans (Jones) - to retrieve the knife with which he's killed Marie; he cuts his throat at the kitchen table. I couldn't look. But certainly the sense of claustrophobia reached its peak here. And the aftermath, with the Doctor (ex-Wotan James Morris) and the Captain (Thomas Randle, still in good all-round shape) looking outwards from downstairs, played its part in chilling the blood (the two pictured with Leigh Melrose's Wozzeck in the centre below).

All the performances were strong, although I found Sara Jakubiak's Marie a tad undercharacterised, and Melrose could have made some of his longer lines more beautiful; the delivery was mostly very loud, the acting beyond reproach.

At the end, it wasn't my legs but my arms which had turned to jelly. I physically couldn't clap. And apologies to Guy, if he's reading this, for stonewalling him at the end, because I couldn't, didn't want to, speak for a good fifteen minutes afterwards.

It's too late to catch it now - the last performance was on Saturday - but, avoiding The Perfect American like the plague as I am (shutters down on Glass, and only Glass), if you want a rather more unexpected roller-coaster ride in an interval-less hour and forty minutes, go see Richard Jones's slyly skewed production of Ibsen's Public Enemy - aka An Enemy of the People - at the Young Vic. Having reviewed it for The Arts Desk, I should go again before it ends on 8 June. Below, the Stockmann brothers, played by Darrell D'Silva and Nick Fletcher, at loggerheads; photo for the Young Vic by Keith Pattison.

Nothing like a good dose of Chabrier to warm the blood, though. I was given the disc of orchestral plums at the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande's Festival Hall concert with the great Neeme Järvi the evening after I went to see Wozzeck. Järvi's not-of-this-world partnership with Boris Berezovsky, a pianist I've long wanted to hear live, in an unorthodox Grieg Piano Concerto turned out to be the highlight (the two pictured below at the concert by Jas Sansi), though there were masterly things as always about his Tchaikovsky Pathétique, including the best 5/4 waltz I've ever heard.

It was time for nostalgia: as in 1980, when a then unknown-in-the-west Järvi brought the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra to London, an encore was Arvo Pärt's Cantus to the Memory of Benjamin Britten (in 1980, I'd never heard any of Pärt's music). That had the same slot last night. If only the audience, full of Swiss watchmakers, had applauded more vociferously, we might have had Chabrier as a second encore on this occasion (back in 1980 it had been the Alla Marcia from Sibelius's Karelia Suite).

How else would these pieces get an airing beyond the world of CD? In my ideal concert, I think I'd have the Joyeuse Marche, with its lopsided rhythms and raucous glitter, at the start. Or would it be España, with its obsessive harping on the home key offset by orchestration as fabulous as Ravel's (a great admirer)? And could I have the lurching of the Fête polonaise from Le Roi malgré lui as my encore?

The recording which won me over was Ansermet's second (1964) Chabrier selection with the same Swiss orchestra; although that remains a key spirit-lifter, and its Fête polonaise swaggers in different places, Järvi has his own brisk glitter, a few characteristic charges at the ends - España especially - and he introduced me to a couple of works I'd never heard, including the early (1874) Lamento, making a persuasive, atmospheric case as always. Ansermet's 1964 Joyeuse Marche is here; never mind the Paris picture show.

So for me it's the Poulenc thing all over again. And here, too, I want to read the letters, from what Roger Nichols in his typically piquant note quotes or intimates. How about this from Chabrier's observation of local women by the Spanish seaside:

On the beach, those señoras possessed of a well-developed bosom often have trouble remembering to do up their costumes securely. From now on I shall  carry buttons and thread with me. To be of service is my greatest desire.

As for the intimations, thus Nichols on the Fête polonaise: 'in a letter still barely printable well over a century later, Chabrier whimsically envisaged turning the stage into an orgy, and then hiring a hypnotist to come and calm everyone down'.

Well, it wasn't all sunshine and roses; the later years before Chabrier's death from syphilis, Nichols tells us, were unhappy ones. But never understimate the power of the greatest light music to spread joy. We need it for our good health as much as we need Wozzeck for an understanding of the human condition. Oh, and happy 100th birthday, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Done my bit on that already, though happy to hear it again this year.

Friday, 24 May 2013


Giacomo Serpotta (1662-1732), stuccatoro eccellentissimo, is the pretext for my last and long overdue excursion into a Palermitan old-town quarter. I'm not even sure if two of the oratories on which he worked his stucco magic are even strictly within the bounds of La Vucciria, once celebrated for its market (less so now, I was told by our masterchef hostess Nicoletta Lanza Tomasi, who prefers to shop in the Capo and the Ballarò). A third, which tells a sorry tale, certainly isn't. The Oratory of San Lorenzo sits alongside the monuments-rich church of San Francesco near the Piazza Marina.

In that atmospheric quarter, the Antica Focacceria San Francesco faces the church in a little square. Sadly neither that nor its nearby gelateria were  open for business, but may have been so by the time Easter arrived, to judge from the preparations within.

The church has splendid Romanesque decoration in the arch beneath its rose window

and has been mostly de-Baroqued within,

one chapel to the right of the presbytery excepted.

Among its side chapels is elaborate early Renaissance work - not so common in this city - by Francesco Laurana. I liked the air of modest piety, with plenty of Easter week worshippers at prayer. But the greater treasures, or what's left of them, are within the oratory next door, approached by an attractively planted courtyard.

The only major Caravaggio in town, a Nativity with Saints Lawrence and Francis above the altar, was stolen in 1969 along with many of the figures in the fascinating little stucco theatres which seem to have been a speciality of Serpotta, his brother and his son. No doubt the painting sits in the house, or vault, of some Palermitan mafioso.

The restoration took place in 2003, funded like work on the other oratories by the baroque expert who loved his Serpotta, Anglo-American Donald Garstang. He did more than anyone to make sure that Palermo honoured its finest artist since the Normans. I'm reliant on a wiki-image for the interior shot, since this is the only oratory where photography isn't permitted, and the details that follow come from the only postcard on sale.

Fortunately the stucco masterpiece of the building, Serpotta's amazing depiction of St Lawrence on the gridiron, remains intact on the west wall, and repays close study.

The Serpotta trail in La Vucciria begins behind the grandiose, mafia-favoured church of San Domenico - closed all day on our visit - in the church's lavish Oratorio del Rosario. Here the altarpiece Meisterwerk, Van Dyck's Assumption, remains intact

and is decked around, in Serpotta's work of 1710-17, with statues of the allegorical Virtues supposedly modelled on society ladies, like Justice with raised sword

The Virtues are interspersed with the Mysteries of the Rosary (not being a good Catholic boy, I'm largely ignorant of those). Some of the paintings come close to the Van Dyck in quality.

I'm not a great fan of rococo excess, but Serpotta's putti who assist the noble dames certainly have character. This one is bizarrely tonsured as a monk

while another carries a lamb aloft to Purity

and in the presbytery another plays a bassoon.

Nearby Santa Maria in Valverde was covered in the kind of baroque marbles we'd admired in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the Capo, but as a service was being conducted for the small Romanian community, we carried on along the street to the Oratory of Santa Cita (Zita). The church, reached by a small connecting cloister with another specimen of the Brazilian Chorisia I'd admired in the botanical gardens,

seems to have been as badly damaged in the Second World War as the neighbouring Palazzo Lampedusa, our friend Giuseppe Tomasi's pride and joy which he was forced to abandon for Via Butera 28. The piano nobile passageway still has some very beautiful floral Sicilian tiling

but the oratory's the thing, Serpotta's most imposing achievement, dating from 1685-90: the whole of the west wall is covered in theatres (see up top), at the centre of which is a depiction of the Battle of Lepanto. The Oratory was dedicated to the Virgin in the 16th century for her 'intervention' in said battle.

The theatre scenes around it here include the road to Calvary

and a well-composed Flagellation

while the flanking figures are just as remarkable, including the boys below the battle scene

and a fine figure of a man.

Again, the putti are remarkable, if you care for that sort of thing (J decidedly didn't, and I'd have preferred more of the above). These two struggle manfully, if that's the right word, with a lion in the presbytery.

The rain of our only squally day, that ultima colpa della coda dell'inverno, as the paper put it, which made travelling on to our agriturismo outside Castelbuono that afternoon somewhat fraught, was intensifying. So we took a quick walk around the scaffolded Palazzo Lampedusa, passed the Vincenzo Bellini Conservatory of Music, popped in to the well restored renaissance church of San Giorgio dei Genovesi to see a fine Giordano of the Madonna of the Rosary, and headed up to the main drag to buy provisions for our trip outside Palermo. Here, my debt to an unforgettable week isn't quite paid: Monreale, Cefalù and Castelbuono have yet to be honoured. Meanwhile, I continue to disturb myself post-Wozzeck with John Dickie's indignation-fuelled study of the Sicilian mafia, Cosa Nostra.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Talkabout: Strauss, Prokofiev, Stravinsky

Put a week's silence here down to busy talk scheduling - crazy, in fact, but the subjects were desert island pieces (original 1912 design for the domain of Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Ariadne above by Ernst Stern), so I wanted to do them all. Sunday was the first mad day. Having to be at Glyndebourne for a 10.30am talk, with a sound test well in advance, meant it was worth staying over on Saturday night to avoid a very early start from London. I was also able to fit in an interview the previous lunchtime with Katharina Thoma, director of the Ariadne auf Naxos which has just opened, and Kate Lindsey, the mezzo singing the Composer. Delightful company, as you can glean from the way-too-long but I hope interesting Arts Desk Q&A. I get to see the show when I talk again at Glyndebourne on 2 June.

Thoma took her central production idea from the fact that Glyndebourne was used as a wartime home for evacuee children. It looks idyllic as they run gay through green meadows, but no doubt the trauma always lurked.

Though it seems from another archive photo that there was no lake in the 1940s, and of course no new opera house, otherwise not a great deal has changed. Of course a smooth lawn now takes the place of the meadow, but the goalposts suggested that fun and games were still to be had before the season opened last Saturday.

The relatively new garden regime takes time to have its full effect: there aren't nearly as many varieties of exotic tulips as there used to be, but enough to make a pre-season May visit special.

The tree peony in the formal garden used to be in full spate on study days, but this year's slow progress means it's only budding, ready to burst.

Notoriously variable in its featured artists - remember the dreadful 'portraits' by Adam 'Son of Harry' Birtwistle? - Glyndebourne has made an odd choice this year. You'll be taken aback by Sean Henry's standing or sitting lifesize figures in polychrome/bronze dotted about the place (Bryn as Wanderer is the one I didn't see), and generally I don't mind them, but I'm not at all sure about 'Catafalque', the recumbent man out on the lawn. He certainly changes perspectives like this one from the Ebert Room where the talks take place.

So I took the audience on a whistlestop tour of Strauss and Hofmannsthal's three Molière projects, starting with Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme as Der Bürger als Edelmann in 1912. On the downloadable Glyndebourne podcast the plot's the thing, shorn of the Sunday talk's background complexities. It's very likeably presented by Margaret (aka Peggy) Reynolds and has been well edited by the delightful Mair Bosworth. I talk on it alongside an expert on commedia dell'arte and that great gentleman Michael Kennedy, whose Master Musicians book led my teenage self deeper into Strauss.

On Sunday, playing Pavarotti as the Rosenkavalier tenor singing 'Di rigori armato il seno' seemed like a good place to start alongside the same text delivered by an Italian Singer(ess, so it's armata) in Lully/Molière's Ballet des Nations. Hopping between Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Version 1 and the more familiar 1916 all-operatic Ariadne meant some fun in comparing Zerbinetta's whole-tone-higher, longer original crazy coloratura aria with the one we usually get.

There wasn't time to feature the cod-Turkish ceremony of Hofmannsthal's 1917 Bürger-minus-Ariadne (I'll never forget the late Peter Allen's take on it in his Edinburgh University staging of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme for Les Escogriffes, which involved a swimming pool and actors in Kermit and Fozzy Bear masks: genius, it seemed at the time). But the first musical programme which Glyndebourne dramaturg Cori Ellison had devised, under the aegis of the lovely people in the Education Department, made amends with the Madrigal alongside two numbers from the 1912 incidental music - Monsieur Jourdain's little doggerel song, which I'd played in sequence with the original composer's aria 'Du, Venus' Sohn', and the pretty neoclassical duet for shepherd and shepherdess - as well as, from the opera, Harlequin's serenade and, from the Prologue, the Composer's ode to music.

As always with the young singers involved, you think, if the covers are this good, can the artists they're covering be better? That was true of all three singers, accompanied by repetiteur Helen Collyer: soprano Lucy Hall, mezzo Carla Dirlikov (pictured above by John Myers) - who pulled out all the stops for her big number, acting and all - and a fine young baritone, Daniel Shelvey.

I'd have loved to stay and hear Hall and Collyer in two Zemlinsky songs with Hofmannsthal texts, as well as Margaret/Peggy's 'mythical sisters' talks - the afternoon was devoted to the other new production, Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie - but a taxi was waiting at 11.55 to whisk me to Lewes station and the train back to London for a 3pm event.

This one was unmissable: Denis Kozhukhin playing all three of Prokofiev's titanic so-called 'War' Sonatas (6-8, composed between 1938 and 1944). Because the feat required a bigger rest-up time during the interval between the Seventh and Eighth Sonatas, the Southbank's The Rest is Noise team, having liked what they heard of my Paris 1910-1930 taster, enlisted me to talk for about 15 minutes while Denis prepared for the final hurdle. Classical Music Programme Manager Ben Larpent took the following photos; obviously the pianist could only be snapped after his performances.

Kozhukhin's interpretations were much as I'd found them when I reviewed his Onyx CD for the BBC Music Magazine's May issue: fabulously nuanced and with an uncanny skill in bringing out the tone-colours of different simultaneous lines. For me there was too much sustaining pedal in developments - not at all Prokofiev the pianist's style - and something reined in about the outer movements of the Sixth and Seventh Sonatas, though the latter's central Andante caloroso moved me to tears.

Just as well, perhaps, because my talk started - with credit to friend and so-collegial fellow Prokofievian Daniel Jaffé, whose singing-teacher then-wife Frith spotted the correspondence - with its obvious-when-you-hear-it resemblance to Schumann's 'Wehmut' from the Op. 39 Liederkreis. And of course this is one of those coded references to suffering which we used to think were exclusive to Shostakovich. Eichendorff's text begins 'I can sometimes sing/As if I were happy,/But secretly tears well up/Which free my heart', and ends 'no one can truly feel the anguish of my song's deep sorrow'. I don't need to add any more about the context except to repeat what I've written elsewhere, that according to his older son Sviatoslav, Prokofiev never talked about the terrible years 1936 and '37 to anyone, at least in the children's hearing.

Anyway, having a captive audience in the middle of a concert opened me up to a taste of my own reviewing medicine, so it was a relief to find that Colin Clarke on MusicWeb's Seen and Heard International approved. Quite a few enthusiastic listeners were unusually willing to come up and chat at the end of the concert, perhaps because they could see where I was sitting. And I got to meet the ever so nice Roger Vignoles, who said he'd heard Schumann when Kozhukhin played the movement, but couldn't place what exactly until I did it for him.

The glory, of course, was the pianist's: the end crowned the mighty work with the best of the three performances, as on the disc, of the Eighth, with its huge tarantella-cum-march finale majestically tying up the pain with the biting humour. Here's Kozhukhin introducing the sonatas.

My desert island disc of that, by the way, is the incomparable Sviatoslav Richter's, but this interpretation was very fine indeed. And Kozhukhin's way of terracing the sound came across beautifully in the only possible encore - Bach, but arranged by Ziloti (the B minor Prelude). There's certainly no harm in featuring the pianist who gave the premiere of the Eighth Sonata, Emil Gilels, in this ineffable lowering of temperatures.

Actually Kozhukhin's own performance of this gem, also to be heard but not seen on YouTube, is just as magical in its way.

With only a couple of days in London - more talking, this time in the Gloriana class - I flew up to Glasgow on Wednesday afternoon and back on Thursday night, since I had to be off to my beloved Göttingen and its Handel Festival the following morning. This way I didn't get to stay for the concert in which Matthias Pintscher conducted the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, which I was discussing earlier in the evening; another quick whizz after another talk was again the order of the day. But I did get to see Scottish Opera's new G&S, The Pirates of Penzance, to which I took godson Alexander on Wednesday night and which I reviewed for The Arts Desk. Here's the consummate Richard Suart's Major-General pirated, picture for Scottish Opera by KK Dundas.

In short, although the cast and orchestra were mostly excellent, the Savoy wit and wisdom drowned in a stream of gags by a director who didn't trust his material. I enjoyed rather more my haggis and chips sitting in warm sun on Sauciehall Street before the show. Ah well; Alexander got the point that the text is dazzlingly witty - who but Gilbert would rhyme 'Aristophanes' with 'Zoffanies'? - and the music stronger, quite often, than the Italian opera it spoofs.

Thursday was mostly spent indoors working on the Glyndebourne interview transcription and brushing up the material for the talk. But I did have an hour off walking from the ever-welcome aBode Hotel in Bath Street to City Halls. En route I had a plate of oysters fried in polenta

sitting outside at Glasgow's oldest established restaurant, Rogano, inspired design-wise by the art deco of the Queen Mary back in 1935.

The Duke of Wellington outside the Gallery of Modern Art, traditional target for Glaswegian malarkey, is no longer traffic-coned as he was in February but sports a rather sinister face mask (representing what I couldn't make out).

I took in some rather remarkable Victorian/Edwardian architecture around the City Halls in Candleriggs, all nicely tarted up for this fashionable zone. Again, I'd love to know more about what I was seeing, though I've just identified the eccentric turret in the middle as part of a former warehouse in Brunswick Street 'designed in the baronial style by architect RW Billings in 1854 for J and W Campbell'. The City Chambers are seen in the centre of the bottom picture.

Then I ensconced myself in a dressing room backstage at the City Halls to work, courtesy of Douglas Templeton and Andrew Trinick,

popping out for Pintscher's rehearsal of The Rite. Such efficient use of the time available, such professional dovetailing, such clarity and character; the firm basis would have allowed for any amount of extra intensity in the performance. Must set aside time to listen to the broadcast of the event proper available on the BBC Radio 3 iPlayer (a more than usually generous three weeks left to catch it).

In the talk, I tried to offset the perceived modernism of Stravinsky's score and Nijinsky's choreography at the premiere 100 years ago this month with the music's roots in folk music and Musorgsky (the opening piping - I love Saint-Saens's remark in 1913, 'if that's a bassoon, I'm a baboon' - is a reworking of shepherd Gritsko's reed-playing at the end of the Sorochintsy Fair version of Night on a Bare Mountain).

So, after the most stressy of the week's travels, on to a more relaxing ambience in Göttingen where I wasn't required to hold forth and concert treasures - if not this year's opera - offered plenty of soul food. More on that anon, but let's connect by having William IV less stylishly debunked by the students of the university he so splendidly enriched just before his death in 1837 than the Duke of Wellington is by the Glaswegians.

23/5 Oh yes, and Wagner was a nifty four times 50 on the day of posting. How could I have forgotten? Anyway, I'm not in the mood at the moment (and a concert conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, of all people, hardly seemed like the best way to celebrate). There will be nothing but Wagner for me at the end of the year, for reasons I'm still not at liberty to divulge.