Tuesday 30 October 2007

Autumn interlude

While Sophie (see below) sizzles back in Mali, Jeremy and I have been enjoying autumnal pleasures closer to home. The lack of cheap half-term flights to Italy, where we like to go hiking twice a year, proved a blessing in disguise - and coincidentally does wonders for our carbon footprint, since we took trains to Herefordshire and Essex, admittedly only to be ferried around to our walking-places by our hosts in the unecological motor.

Before that, we caught one of those still, uncanny autumn days at Kew, where the Henry Moores stand monolithic in the big broad avenues. The second photo was taken on a disposable camera as I'd forgotten to carry my Canon westwards - it's a bit fuzzy but certainly better than nothing. The ruins are a hidden treasure that many friends seem to know about – Llanthony Priory in the beautiful Vale of Ewyas below the Black Mountains and our current stretch of the Offa’s Dyke path. Along that we walked with Stephen Johnson (also mentioned below), musing on contemporary composers’ obsession with process at the expense of substance, and Stephen positing the interesting idea that all such should be conscious of the ‘hook’ which pop writers use to entice punters: what’s wrong with that?

Process turned out to be just about all in Colin Matthews’ newish piece launching the latest BBCSO concert, which we caught back in London for a day on Friday: well orchestrated (except in the typically unimaginative use of the 'tongs and the bones') but nebulous. Debussy, the avowed model, isn’t nearly as wispy: his ‘hooks’, however evanescent, have real power. The Britten Cello Symphony has been running over and over in my head since the performance ‘starring’ Alban Gerhardt – a cool customer compared to dedicatee Slava Rostropovich, but it was wonderful to hear him forcing the melody through in the cadenza. Maestro for the night John Adams then celebrated turning sixty with the transcendental-cum-violent choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer. C Matthews could do with some of that directness, though I appreciate his aims are different.

Monday 22 October 2007


Chris Larkin, long-serving horn player of the BBC Symphony and doyen of the brass world, has been in regular email contact since the last two BBCSO concerts. He writes as beautifully as he plays, so I asked his permission to reproduce his memories of great Gunter Wand (proffered re Belohlavek's Bruckner 7) here:

'I bought my first LP of Bruckner (9th Symphony) in 1963. I was a budding horn-player in Wigan (besieged by a strong brass-band tradition). In those days, should one wish to purchase a full-price LP at 38s 6d, one was allowed to hear a bit of it in the booth at the record shop. Imagine the impact on a fifteen year old horn-player on hearing the opening of Bruckner's 9th ! I coughed up my hard-earned cash without a thought. The recording was Bruno Walter's and the (as I later found out - hand-picked) Columbia S.O. I have it to this day. Later on I got to play it with Colin Davis, when I was in the BBC Training Orchestra, then Rafael Kubelik with the LSO, but the only conductor to have ever approached Walter's sublimity was Gunter Wand. He had as great an approach (in my very humble opinion).

'He also was a cantankerous old *** ~ but, as he always, always said after our performances (I was Chairman of the Players' Committee at the time and made it a point to thank him after our once-a-year encounters) "Misser Larkin, Misser Larkin ...es ist nur fur die musik, es ist nur fur die musik". Once, when we were on tour in Switzerland, a deputation lined up by Bela Dekany (which included me, John Chimes and David Butt amongst others) peeled off to take lunch with him at his house in Ulmiz. Anita produced a superb spread and Gunter came up with several bottles of excellent Bordeaux ~ however HE drank only neat vodka (whilst complaining all the while that his guts were giving him terrible gyp !!!).

'And all he ever seemed to want was the double or triple dotted rhythms to "line up". When it worked it REALLY worked. There was a Bruckner 8 in the Proms. Mike Davis had only recently joined the orchestra as leader and, coming from the closer friendship that he had had at the LSO with Abbado - they shared a love of football - he couldn't quite work out what to do with Wand. Mike came up to me and said "Do you think we should all stand up for him when he comes on ?" (In those days we were only supposed to stand up for our Principal Conductor, not our Chief Guest). I just said "Mike, if we do that - we will have the greatest performance in years ". We did ~ and the critics said that we were "As good as the Vienna Philharmonic" [Thanks a lot chaps................but still].'

There's more - but he might not thank me for broadcasting it. Thanks for that, anyway, Chris.

Friday 19 October 2007


To the Pushkin House, Bloomsbury Square, on Wednesday evening for the first of Rosamund Bartlett's lectures on Chekhov's short stories. She's an enthusiastic presenter, loves her subject, and had a raft of slides which made one want to go to Taganrog and Yalta. Lecture 1 was a general introduction, prefaced by a reading of 'A Little Joke' by a photographer friend. R was especially lively on Chekhov's punctuation, comparing his commas and sentence breakdown with the more effortful attempts of two translators (no, really, it was fascinating in practice). Future events feature the brothers Fiennes and Michael Pennington. The generous host, Maurice Pinto, treated us all to an Italian meal round the corner afterwards.

The Pushkin House is classily decorated and the lecture room is hung with pictures (it's a bit noisy, as the traffic roars along Bloomsbury Way). There's a comfortable library and the House has an amazing programme (all laid out on a handsome website - www.pushkinhouse.org.uk). I don't know why it took RB's email to alert me to this treasurehouse. I'm in discussion with the director, Julian Gallant, about a Prokofiev series next year (there, at last my Main Man Sergey Sergeyevich gets a mention).

Last night was sheer pleasure with the Morley students focusing on Britten's Violin Concerto and Cello Symphony (blighted only by the usual debacle with the Morley sound equipment). Why is the Concerto not hailed as being up there with the Berg and Shostakovich 1? The way it opens up into symphonic dimensions in the last-movement Passacaglia is astounding. The Cello Symphony is harder work, so oblique and skeletal in its opening movement, but Britten wears his heart on his immaculately-crafted sleeve in the slow movement. The economy of means here reminds me of Sibelius 4.

Wednesday 17 October 2007

On blogging

Here is the muse of the current blog, my glamorous friend Sophie Sarin, in two incarnations (more anon). For over a year now she's kept us posted on the setting-up, vicissitudes and triumphs of her new hotel in Djenne, Mali, famous for its mud mosque (and now for her hotel, which vies with it for architectural distinction - perhaps I exaggerate a little).

Of course it's all a lot more 'other' and startling than a plain old chronicle of London musical life. But I enjoyed it so much I was inspired to do the same. Another friend thinks blogging is a hideous self-indulgence, a wamble without editorial interference and a bore (even when I directed her to Sophie's site - www.djennedjenno.blogspot.com - she was unimpressed). But I like it.

The photos? One is of our Sophe pumping the water away from Hotel Djenne Djenno when it came under threat in the recent floods. The other - and this justifies her presence in a musical context - sees her standing beside a bust of Gustavus III of Sweden at a recent Swedish bash in London (she has been here on a hard-working visit painting a floorcloth for Apsley House). Gustavus III, the tenor hero of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, was of course shot by baritone Anckarstroem, who turns out to be Sophie's mother's lover's great-great-(great?)-grandfather. Alles klar?

Saturday 13 October 2007

That Czech again

Jiri (pronounced 'Yizhi' - I can't do the accent over the 'r') Belohlavek's second BBCSO concert, if anything, surpassed the first (see 'A new season') in terms of perfect programming and lively execution. The novelty was a long-abandoned piece by Zemlinsky, Waldgesprache, extending the Eichendorff poem about the Lorelei into a ten-minute scena for soprano and orchestra. Camilla Tilling brought it all splendidly to life (with a chilling 'du bist die Hexe Lorelei!') and handled the child-heaven song at the end of Mahler 4 with great skill (she couldn't do all the long phrases in one breath, but broke them up intelligently). The voice has great amplitude for a lyric soprano: my friend Isabel wondered whether she'd soon edge into Wagnerian territory - Elsa, Elisabeth, possibly Sieglinde?

BBC Messageboarders have been unbelievably negative about Belohlavek's Bruckner 7, bewailing sub-amateur execution: where and how? There were a few squeaks and pops in the Mahler, but only because he asked so much in terms of colour and articulation from the wind and the (smallish) brass section. Haydn's misnamed Miracle Symphony, No. 96, was a delight - so fresh, lilting and original. There seems to be a ?new? co-principal oboist to share with the wonderful Richard Simpson; this chap, David Powell, did playful things with the trio of the minuet. Things to hear before I die: all the Haydn symphonies and quartets, all the Bach cantatas. If I didn't spend my time listening to so much, I'd play a different Bach cantata every morning after breakfast. Isabel talks of getting us together as a small choir with a small orchestra - we know a few folk on the early music scene - and working our way through them for pure pleasure.

Lively crowd for the pre-performance talk, much more fun in the Fountain Room than the Barbican's concert hall, where the lights glare and you can't see the punters' faces. I started by freewheeling from Bruckner to Mahler via Wagner, Bellini and Haydn, and talking about the different uses of the 'gruppetto' (think Brunnhilde's theme or the big tune in the Rienzi Overture). Then I went back over some of the ground covered with the Morley students on Thursday evening - song into symphony, how every symphony looks back to the one before it and forward to the next, each a chapter in an exceptionally voluminous autobiography. After the concert, 'Yizhi' talked to Ann McKay - maybe his lack of idiomatic English makes him sound a little boring at times, which he certainly isn't as a conductor; I had the same experience when I interviewed him for Gramophone some years back.

His most interesting remark was to claim Mahler as a Czech composer which, being born in Jihlava/Iglau he no doubt is. Looking forward to another excursion in 'Czechia' with our lovely Viennese friends Tommi and Martha on the Mahler trail. Earlier this year, at the end of May, they drove us around Janacek country - Brno, Luhacovice and Hukvaldy. The last-named, the village where Janacek was born and died, is rich in atmosphere, and there's a statue of Bystrouska, the heroine of that evergreen masterpiece The Cunning Little Vixen , dedicated by the local huntsmen. It stands on the edge of the forest in the castle park where Janacek walked and absorbed the wood magic for his music.

statue of the vixen dedicated by the local huntsmen
And here's the local insignia:

Hukvaldy town badge with the vixen

Wednesday 10 October 2007

Carmen, get it?

Here's another one my otherwise open mind may be leading me to miss: Bizet's vibrant masterpiece as rendered by the ice-cold Sally Potter at the English National Opera. Orlando, if anyone really cares, is my second most loathed film of all time (Clint Eastwood's Bird is still the first, and recently I discovered a third which I also didn't see through to the end: Woody Allen's September, a pallid homage to our greatest Master, the late lamented Ingmar Bergman). As with the Ring, I have no problem with radical re-thinks, but Ms Potter's, by all accounts save the (usually reliable) Mr Seckerson, is a muddle. Alice Coote may have a certain sensuality, but she'd have to go a long way to 'be' Carmen (I remember a Glyndebourne chorene's reaction to Anne-Sofie von Otter's interesting take: 'she looks as if she's gone to Stockholm public library to look up the word "sex"'). Besides, Coote sounded in trouble when she sang Sesto for the ENO revival of Mozart's Clemenza di Tito; according to Michael Tanner, she still is. So do I make the effort for Ed Gardner's conducting? I'm still open to persuasion.

While in the vicinity of the cinema, I've been struck by the use of music in two films I've seen over the past few days. Revisiting the glorious All About Eve, it was fascinating to hear conventional Hollywood hearts-n-flowers stuff in the background to Eve's mendacious narrative of her tragic history. The dance melodies at the parties are significant, as is the stuff on the car radio when Margo and her treacherous best friend are stranded (Liszt's 'Liebestraum' pops up for a second time). Yesterday, I was taken aback by the modernity of Fritz Lang in M (why haven't I seen this film before?) The only music in the entire film is the tune so piercingly whistled by the child-murderer as brilliantly played by Peter Lorre: it's Grieg's 'In the Hall of the Mountain King'. When this bug-eyed troll is tracked down, it's chiefly because a blind balloon-seller recognises the whistle: how's that for a touch of genius in one of the early 'talkies'?

Tuesday 9 October 2007

Ring from a distance

I'm almost sorry I decided not to revisit the Royal Opera Ring, currently running as a festive sequence for the first time: almost, because three instalments of Keith Warner's incoherent vision seemed like quite enough at the time. Rheingold worked best: it's a box of tricks, and the more ideas you throw at it the better it seems to thrive. But as soon as Warner came to the one-to-ones, the electricity and communication between the singers seemed to be swamped on the cluttered stage. Until then, I'd never sat through Walkure or Gotterdammerung unmoved. There were problems with the far from ideal ebb and flow of Pappano's choppy conducting - he's been so wonderful in nearly everything else he's done at the Opera House, and really has set it on the crest of a wave - and Lisa Gasteen's Brunnhilde: she has a gleaming mid-range which explains why she got the part, but nothing up top, though she sometimes disguises it well. And then there was Bryn, so fine in Rheingold, so taxed and tired out in Walkure that on the night I went he had to mark Wotan's farewell.

All that changed when Terfel family fortunes, we're told, led to his cancellation this time round. If he really pulled out to tend to a son in need, that's admirable in a way. But whatever the circumstances, in sweeps John Tomlinson, the most athletic and extraordinary Wotan at Bayreuth in the early nineties - if I never get to go there again, the experience of that stunning Kupfer Ring will be enough to last me a lifetime - and now a grand old man at 62. I'm told he brings wisdom and world-weariness to the part at Covent Garden, even if at times he strains for the high notes, on which he worked so hard at Bayreuth. When I last saw him singing Act 3 of Walkure in concert a couple of years ago with Petra Lang, the inspirational Ivan Fischer conducting, he went so red in the face that one feared he was about to have a stroke; but the tears still flowed. A singer friend of mine who's pally with Lisa Gasteen says how much confidence she's gained from working with an experienced Wotan; Bryn's nervous first time around communicated unease to all concerned, even if it didn't show to the audience.

We had our own proto-Wagnerian experience in the class last night, which I devoted mostly to the Orestes-Pylades scene in Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride, and especially to the monologue in which he believes that calm has returned, but the syncopated violas tell him otherwise: not surprising that Berlioz went crazy about it, claiming every single note in every part absolutely essential. I'm coming to love this music more and more, especially those simple but piercing arias for Iphigenie in Act 1 and Pylade in Act 2. We'll now spend a total of five weeks on it instead of the four I'd planned - making a more fair balance between Gluck and Britten. Whether Owen Wingrave will survive the shift, I don't know, but I have my doubts about it, especially alongside Turn of the Screw, which will have the lion's share of the second half of term.

Great pleasure to be had from the 'Wigmore Live' recording of Schubert's ineffable 'Shepherd on the Rock'. Ailish Tynan may not be Margaret Price, but she invests her delivery with such effervescence and urgency that one's quite won over. What a contrast with the placid, slightly narcissistic delivery of new white hope Kate Royal on her debut disc. Communication's the thing.

Sunday 7 October 2007

A new season

With the academic year recently under way, and the usual overload of clashing events on the London concert/opera scene, now seems like as good a time as any to launch the self-indulgence of a blog. I've spent too much time on the Radio 3 Message Boards trying to wave a shining sword against the nay-sayers, usually in vain, so I might as well use it more productively.

My City Lit 'Opera in Focus' course, mostly for the curious leisured classes, kicked off its nineteenth season two Mondays ago. The debate continues as to what we ought to be. Swimming as we do in a sea of vocational subjects designed, as the government believes, to get people in to work, is there any place for plain old musical appreciation and (tell it not in Gath) a series of lectures preface by a fair swathe of discussion about who's seen what? The powers tell me to encourage more 'open-ended questioning' and to split the students into groups for discussion. The students reject that vociferously - 'we've come here to learn from you, not to listen to each other' - and I can't help feeling that if we did more of what was asked, those who hold forth would continue to dominate, and those who remain silent would still keep mum. Anyway, the proof is in the healthy enrolment: the class fills its quota of 32 students on the day booking opens, and there's a waiting list almost as long again.

I was doubtful about the first choice of the two operas this term: Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride. Mozart he may not be, but his 'noble simplicity' has virtues of its own. There's so much to talk about around the subject: the reforms of the 1760s and '70s, the Euripides original, the variant versions of the Iphigenia myth whereby Agamemnon's daughter may have been slain by her own father to get the Greek fleet sailing from Aulis, or rescued by Artemis/Diana and whisked off to the Crimea. But does the opera hold up as drama? Saw the concurrent show at the Royal Opera on Tuesday: just about the most austere production I've ever come across, and this from director Robert Carsen who usually goes in for hauntingly lit, handsomely costumed mises en scene. Here, all wear black on a dark set; a blinding light only dawns in the last two minutes, when the leading characters stumble off disoriented. The opening scene, a protracted storm complete with vocal laments from Iphigenia and her fellow priestesses is brilliantly done in violent dance: the cycle of murders - Iphigenia by Agamemnon, he by Clytemnestra, she by Orestes - chalks up the names on the walls as the characters are flung against them. There is great music in Act 2, Orestes' false calm before the Furies return to haunt him, Iphigenia's aria of grief for the brother she believes lost. But the evening crumbles rather in its second half, and Gluck seems to throw away the great recognition scene in bald accompanied recitative. I've since spent time with the Eliot Gardiner recording, and Diana Montague makes a more plangent heroine than the robust Susan Graham. There's some coarsening of Simon Keenlyside's often excellent baritone; he makes the quiet scene of uneasy peace very moving, but flings himself around in too consciously actorish a way. Ed Seckerson noted in his Independent review that less would be more.

So I came away ultimately underwhelmed. Since then, though, fishing around the subject has proved fascinating: I've tracked down Maria Wimmer in speeches from Goethe's play, called forth the student with the finest speaking voice to read from Euripides and discovered three songs by Schubert characterising Iphigenia and Orestes. The furies scene will be interesting to set alongside Gluck's Orfeo and the underworld scene in Alceste.

So, yes, I'm engrossed by this, as I have been by going through the Sibelius symphonies from first to last in writing notes for Esa-Pekka Salonen's forthcoming Barbican series. Sibelius's diaries around the Fourth and Fifth make for singular reading. On Friday I had to speak on Bruckner 7 before the BBC Symphony Orchestra's first Barbican concert of the season, and the performance - very firm of purpose under first-rate Belohlavek - had me thinking of an interesting connection. Sibelius writes of his symphonies as 'confessions of faith from different periods of my life'. Yet so often they're defined in terms of evoking Finnish landscapes. As in Bruckner, there are great ruptures and chasms: as I listened to those terrifying unisons in the finale of Bruckner 7, it struck me that I'd tended to compare them to craggy Alpine rock-faces - but Belohlavek made it clear by stressing the anguished viola wails just before they occur that this was an inner crisis of faith. It's the same with Sibelius: so in the case of both composers, couldn't two things be happening at once - an inner landscape which finds its expression in the outward landscape with which both composers were in such close touch?

Talking to my good friend Stephen Johnson about these two composers, whom he knows so well, confirmed I was on the right track with a lot of what I'd written about Sibelius. We agreed, there is no more complicated genesis in the history of the symphony - including Bruckner's agonised rethinks - than that of the Fifth, the final version of which says almost the opposite of the tormented original. We also talked about the Wagner quotations in Bruckner. He persuaded me that the horn in the Seventh's slow movement really is quoting Tristan. It could be just a coincidental chromatic ascent, were it not for the fact that it's in the same key as the 'glance' motif in the Tristan prelude.

Originally I had a quarter of an hour at the Barbican to talk about Bruckner and Wagner (which seemed like a good idea, given that the Ring is in full swing at Covent Garden as I write). Chris Larkin from the orchestra was going to come on with two Wagner tubas (tenor and bass) for the next fifteen minutes. He's an excellent speaker as well as a fine player and had worked out in detail what we'd cram into that short spot. But a two-hour journey home after the morning's rehearsal, courtesy of the Northern Line, had blitzed him, and he pulled out at 3pm. No matter - the time was easily filled. Then, for the last third, I was to talk to thirtysomething composer Joerg Widmann about ad absurdam, his 'concert-piece' for trumpet and small ensemble. I heard it first on Friday afternoon: it's alive, like the best of Ades and Turnage, and reminded me of that garish, brilliant Clarinet Concerto by Magnus Linberg which had set the hall on fire when Kari Kriikku played it with the BBCSO a couple of seasons ago. This, too, needs the best soloist in the world - the indefatigable Sergey Nakariakov - but there's more to it than just a tour de force. Widmann has an ear for very precise sound-effects, he uses his limited woodwind and percussion with maximum impact and minimum effort, and he doesn't sound like anyone else. He's a nice, enthusiastic chap, too, and backed up what I had to say with telling chapter and verse. Must hear more.

The audience cheered and shouted at the ends of both works. Shame the programme only enticed enough punters to fill a third of the Barbican auditorium. Why can't the BBCSO capitalise on the success of the Proms, and lure more younger people to their Barbican seasons? OK, so you can't stand and move about, and it costs more than the Albert Hall Arena - but only just: tickets are cheap. Still, those who come are all ages, while the LPO and Phiil concerts I've attended recently tend to be almost exclusively middle-aged to elderly. I heard an insulting comment last night from that opinionated TV 'personality' who hosts the Grand Designs programme. He was looking at the five candidates for the RIBA Sterling Prize. Walking into the revamped Young Vic building, he raved about how theatre was now for the young, not the 'blue-rinsed brigade'. Why can't it be for both? It was the same when the LPO pulled out of its co-operation with my Morley classes because the crowd was too 'middle-class, middle-aged and white' (no loss - the BBCSO folk have been wonderfully collegial since then). I'd love it to be more diverse, but I can't control the folk who come, and by rejecting the people who do, the LPO was turning its back on its core audience.

Still, it was wonderful to see the Barbican auditorium last Monday jam-packed with school parties, thrusting young Brazilians and trendy folk, who'd come either for Caetano Veloso or (as we had) for Theatre de Complicite's A Vanishing Number (on Friday, they were still queueing for returns at 8pm, after the show had started). I can't say the play has left much of an impression. It was slickly done, the three leading actors delivered their lines eloquently and at times movingly, but the message of mathematics, infinity and humanity was swamped by information overload - a sometimes annoying score by that fusionist Nitin Sawhney, laptop-generated graphics, stuff about mobile phones which will date horribly. My experience of Complicite has been that they put the stylistic cart before the substantial horse, and this was no exception.

Well, that's quite enough for two weeks' worth of activity. I can honestly say that I'm relishing all my work for the next five days - the buddy-buddy scene and Orestes' monologue in Act Two of Iphigenie for the class tomorrow, three pleasurable CDs to review for the BBC Music Magazine and then on to the intriguing Haydn/Zemlinsky/Mahler programme - Belohlavek's second BBCSO concert this season - for the students at Morley and another pre-performance talk.