Sunday 25 November 2007

Elgar at Morley College

'Inside the BBC Symphony Orchestra', the somewhat anatomically titled (not by me) course I run at Morley College, has its more glamorous side in the shape of our friendly co-operation with players from the orchestra (usually two visits per term). Over the past three years we have built up an especially warm relationship with four 'strings' - violinists Patrick Wastnage and Rachel Samuel, viola-player Nikos Zarb and co-principal cellist Graham Bradshaw - who give concerts as the Helikon Quartet (inspired, I always assumed, by Nikos's Greek roots - his father is an accomplished guitarist, who once came too to play in one of the Boccherini Quintets. Now Rachel tells me she is also of the Hellenic strain - could I have guessed from her name?).

Having failed, owing to labyrinthine orchestral rehearsal procedures, to extract the Helikons to play in one of the pods of the London Eye earlier this year, I was delighted to be able to offer them a concert at the Garrick Club: an illustrated lecture next February in which I shall waffle on about Elgar's Indian summers in Brinkwells, Sussex and they will then play the glorious and complex Quartet. They were pleased to have the opportunity to get the work at least a little into their systems by trying it out at Morley on Thursday evening. So Elgar, the greatest, came to pay his respects to former Morley luminaries Tippett and Holst, whose signatures I have discovered in several scores in the college library, now safely lodged in the special collection.

It was a very happy, relaxed occasion. Both the students and I brought along a few guests, and around the performance there were lively demonstrations of romantic slides and portamenti, the particular uses of vibrato and the different string sounds required by visiting conductors to the BBCSO. The performance was, I think, their finest yet, in that Patrick especially had to soar, and did, in the difficult first violin part, and the passion of the outer movements was extraordinary at such close quarters (though I should add that I shan't forget their earlier Morley performances of the Ravel, Verdi and Shostakovich (First) quartets). We constantly pinch ourselves to realise that we are hearing first-rate music making in the slightly grubby, strip-lit classroom at Morley, surrounded by valiant practice noises (last year, in Room B15, it was trumpeters struggling to intone single notes; now we often get singers working at a level which might make even Florence Foster Jenkins blush).

Afterwards, as the players went off in search of a pint, I and my friends Simon and Patricia dived into the nearest Italian restaurant, the Cotto opposite Lambeth North tube, and found to our surprise that the pasta was fresh, fatta in casa, and the whole ambience very friendly, a l'italiana: an extra pleasure to rival Bos Cirrik after the performance of the play Jenufa the previous week.

Thursday 22 November 2007

No wonder

We are fast approaching the 50th anniversary of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's death on 29 November 1957. I came across this plaque marking his birthplace in Brno quite by chance while on the Janacek trail back in May. I must admit, though, that the current Korngoldolatry rather baffles me. He was a prodigy, no doubt, a slick and easy orchestrator and a master of pace, but what did he actually have to say? Zemlinsky, Busoni and Hindemith, to name but three, all have far more individual voices. Was film music, with its quick evocation of atmosphere and its use of musical material that shouldn't impinge too much upon the senses, Korngold's natural destination?

It rather seems so from the performance of his 1927 monster opera Das Wunder der Heliane, given its UK premiere last night in London's Royal Festival Hall by the inspirational Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I'd been unimpressed by the Decca recording - it struck me then as a pale shadow, so to speak, of Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten. Yet Jurowski clearly believed in it, so it seemed worth while to give it another try.

The better the performance, and the more lustrous the application of Korngold's late romantic orchestral palette, the more yawning the gulf between form and content. Quite apart from the fact that the libretto has to be one of the worst in operatic history, with gems like 'Am I filth, spewed out from sundered hell?' and much along the lines of 'who gives himself, has conquered himself', Korngold falls very short of the possible transcendence that music alone can provide in such circumstances. The soprano and tenor roles are insanely taxing; Patricia Racette almost made us believe in the moment when Heliane offers to undergo a trial before God to bring her beloved, self-slaughtered Stranger back to life. Almost; but for me there wasn't a moment of musical or dramatic truth in the entire work. We have a useful lyric-verging-on-helden tenor, too, in Michael Hendrick; but the Festival Hall audience also witnessed, open-mouthed, possibly the worst baritone singing on a professional platform ever from the once-excellent Andreas Schmidt, the voice now shot to ribbons. He should have cancelled his contract, or maybe never have been put in this position. Anyway, he will ruin the LPO's recording - I assume they're making one from the presence of the microphones - as surely as Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet will 'do' for the Chandos recording of Foulds's A World Requiem (than which Korngold's opera is at least, it has to be said, a great deal more substantial).

Half the audience gaped in reverence at the wonder of it all; the other half wanted to laugh. What is it about such second-rate works which attracts the anoraks? Thomas Mann once wrote that Wagner's Tristan is for young people who don't know what to do with their sexuality; in which case I pose the heretical thought that Korngold's Heliane is for older men who've never known what to do with it.

Finally, then, the same question arises as with the Foulds: would we rather hear such a work done once in concert rather than not at all? In this case, given Jurowski's conviction, maybe; but there are too many much better Austro-German operas lying mouldering. After all, it's over half a century since London heard Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae, a more masterly and inspired work in every way. Hurrumph.

Wednesday 14 November 2007

Jenufa - the play

Simon Annand took this production photograph of the great Paola Dionisotti as the Kostelnicka and outstanding newcomer Jodie McNee as her stepdaughter Jenufa in Irina Brown's UK premiere of Gabriela Preissova's 1890 play. Timberlake Wertenbaker adapted it for the Natural Perspective theatre company's first show at the Arcola Theatre.

It was a revelation. I had come to admire Preissova's achievement when I was preparing classes on Janacek's searing opera at the City Lit; but I had no idea quite how much emotional power Janacek owed to the original play (in Moravian dialect) until I had the chance to see it come across with full force in this dedicated production. The tale, based on a true story of a girl whose stepmother drowned her illegitimate child in an attempt to save her reputation, is universal (even if that sort of thing doesn't happen in our culture, there are plenty of cases even in this country where it still applies). Brown gave it a timelessness by the use of music from eastern Europe and elsewhere - plausible recreations of Bulgarian throat-singing, for instance - to punctuate the scenes of village life.

I couldn't help hearing some of Janacek's unforgettable ideas at times, as in the very moving dialogue in which the Kostelnicka pleads with handsome, feckless Steva to acknowledge his child and, of course, the final scene where, her disowned stepmother having gone off to be sentenced, Jenufa faces the future together with the man who once slashed her face with a knife. Janacek's music surges in irresistible late romantic radiance; but the play is more ambiguous. 'I will be your wife', says Jenufa. 'After all, it's what she wanted. It's what Mama wanted'. Is this a sign of forgiveness for the woman she has just refused to call mother, or a bitter acknowledgment of the Kostelnicka's dominating forcefulness? In a discussion afterwards, Irina Brown told us how she'd come back to see the actors work out this scene three weeks into the run, and couldn't speak afterwards for the emotions it wrought in her. They had, she said, 'gone their own way'. And what a magnificent ensemble, almost as good as the Cloud Nine team (see below). Jodie McNee turns hauntingly from a serious but impulsive girl to a suffering young woman and on to a reflection of her stepmother; the two young men - Oscar Pearce as Laca and Ben Mansfield as Steva - both win our sympathy against the odds. Dionisotti is anything but histrionic, a charge levelled in one clearly misguided review: quiet, dignified, but with terrifying banked fires that erupt from time to time.

I only hope this thoughtful production of a masterly play has a chance to transfer. Even if it doesn't, I'm delighted to have caught it at the wonderful, friendly Arcola in Stoke Newington, just around the corner from what has to be one of the best Turkish restaurants in London, 19 Numara Bos Cirrik, with its delicious lahmacun and special onions soaked in turnip and pomegranate juice. We just had time to snatch a meal there before the show, and the waitress had been told by so many customers how she had to go and see the play. I hope she does. Sadly, it finishes on Saturday.

Tuesday 13 November 2007

'Clairaudiently' my foot

Let's deal first with the last, potentially most interesting but infinitely the worst of the six concerts I heard in an overloaded week. To mark Remembrance Sunday - to which I can only come close to paying homage with the above moody image of a medieval knight in Layer Marney Church, snapped several weeks back - the Beeb decided to mount a spectacular in the shape of John Foulds's A World Requiem, last heard at the Albert Hall in 1926.

And with good reason (for the gap, that is). One so much wanted to like Foulds, with his pacifist intentions, his vast commemoration so close to the horrors of the First World War and the manoeuverings of some 1250 performers (including brass bands at the four compass-points of the Albert Hall, like Berlioz's Requiem - as if this could come anywhere close - and four sizeable choirs). But in my attempt to find out what it might be like, not wanting to endure anything along the lines of the tedium induced by Bantock's non-starter Omar Khayyam, there were warning signs. Some of the initial crits in the 1920s were damning, even though the public seems to have loved it, and the estimable Sakari Oramo, who's championed Foulds's more curious later pieces, turned down the rebirthing on the grounds that he found the World Requiem 'difficult to adapt to the modern day' and 'very sentimental'.

Not only that, but in view of Foulds's theosophical claim to receive music from the spheres 'clairaudiently', God clearly forgot to give him any memorable inspirations. The opening 'Requiem aeternam', with its shifting chords, promises well, but then the poor old baritone (the game but sorely taxed Gerald Finley) has to struggle with reams of one-note declamation. There's a ghastly, sickly 'Peace' movement for distant boys' chorus and soprano (the squally Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet), at which point my companion 'got the giggles' and shuffled out embarrassed during the pause between the two parts. And it worsened in Part Two, after a promising opening blaze and a briefly weird 'Elysium' movement to a text by the Hindu poet Kabir; the celestial twitterings have been compared to Messiaen and minimalism, but they wear very quickly. As for the message, it's all about consolation in the hereafter for the fallen, and hardly deals at all with the suffering or the pity of war. Let anyone compare it at their peril with Britten's War Requiem, or even Elgar's deeply moving 'For the Fallen' from The Spirit of England . Was I glad we at least had a chance to make up our own minds? Given the waste of those large (and generally splendid) forces, not at all.

The BBCSO had already given a rather more incandescent performance, again to a two-thirds empty but very enthusiastic Barbican Hall audience, on Wednesday. I think it's the first time I've seen the wild, impassioned Yan Pascal Tortelier in action. The way he threw himself, scoreless, into Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra struck an acquaintance who collared me afterwards as a bit like 'masturbating in public'. To which I replied that this was clearly not self-love, but love for the piece in question. With its mighty Passacaglia and its weird disjunction between nursery-songlike folk tunes and more complex backdrops, the Lutoslawski fitted in well with the vast, fresh canvas of Britten's Violin Concerto, played with huge spirit if not quite all the notes by Daniel Hope. And the Britten related well, of course, to his master Frank Bridge's most familiar voice in The Sea. There was a lively crowd for the pre-performance talk, with good observations from the punters. One girl was especially fascinated by John Adams's interest in Britten, re his performance of the Cello Symphony a couple of weeks ago, and wondered what he'd taken for Nixon in China- which led to a brief but healthy debate about word-setting and speech-melody in contemporary opera (very rare to find it done well).

I was also reconciled to the larger, more fashion-conscious crowds who, in contrast, filled the hall for the rest of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Sibelius cycle as the interpretations waxed in conviction. His taut precision worked wonders on the First Symphony, and he really grasped the revised Fifth's mighty two-in-one first movement, only nearly to spoil it all by a much slower tempo for the great swinging motif in the finale: surely the point is that it unfolds at the same speed as what's gone before, to show what lies beneath? No matter: the end was predictably thrilling and for once there was sensitivity in the encore, 'The Death of Melisande'. It turned me back to listening to all sorts of Sibelius on Sunday morning: isn't he of the essence, and how well he succeeds in so many spheres, especially light, tuneful incidental music.

Two less glitzy but nevertheless pleasant events rounded out the six-day picture: a concert for Flanders in the glorious surroundings of the Chelsea Royal Hospital Chapel, shared between an early-music quartet and a teenage pianist (daughter of the consort's theorbist) who showed poetry in a Rachmaninov Etude-Tableau but took on too much heavy stuff. The real pleasure of this event was to press the flesh of Baroness Shirley Williams, a delightful and friendly conversationalist. And the lavish reception, laid on by a shipped-in Belgian catering corps, was certainly unexpected. On Thursday, four viola-players from the BBCSO - Kate Read, Carol Ella, Audrey Henning and Natalie Taylor - came to the Morley class. They surprised me by proving that there is original material for the ensemble, not least an astonishingly modern-sounding quartet by Telemann and a piece by York Bowen with a fine, atmospheric introduction. Then there were arrangements by two of the orchestra's trombonists, who curiously have both taken up the viola: the variations on 'Lillibulero' were witty and clever, along the lines of Glinka's Kamarinskaya. Curiously, the ladies didn't mind the small audience and want to come again, adding two more players to make a sextet.

Finally - what a week - I spent five hours closeted with a small group of fellow-critics at BBC Woodlands to decide the shortlist for the BBC Music Magazine awards. My lips are sealed on our choices until they appear in print, but I can say that the time flew by in such excellent company. I'd expected lots of generalisations - 'this is good', 'that one's out' - but someone had something interesting to say on just about every release. And it was a joy to find the two Early Music specialists, Berta Joncus and George Pratt, so open-minded right across the board (Berta's expertise on voices turns out to stem from her own first career as a singer). Curiously, too, we tended to be in agreement about what we hated and what we really loved - though there were hard-fought battles in the Instrumental and Chamber categories, both overloaded with outstanding releases. Lest that makes it all seem like pure fun, I've been asked to add a line to point out how much 'blood, tears and sweat' were spent in the process - and that's especially true for our dynamic hostess, the tireless Helen Wallace, in ordering up and co-ordinating all those discs. Of course, we listened many more hours than we were paid for, but it was such a learning process. For the candidates, due to be listed in the January issue, watch this space.

Tuesday 6 November 2007

Sibelius and Stravinsky bound

'Sibelius unbound' is in fact the title of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Sibelius symphonies cycle with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Barbican. Yet it's hardly liberating: masterful at best, Salonen is curiously un-Finnish in labouring to make a point where compatriots like Berglund and Jukka-Pekka Saraste achieve a more natural flow and cut off abruptly when the music has said what it has to say. Has EPS been too long in LA, where the orchestra has a surface glamour, and very imposing lower strings for the start of the Fourth Symphony, but hard, unyielding violins, rampant brass and a woodwind section that's no match for any of the London departments in terms of sophistication?

There was at least a steely concentration and the right kind of undertow in the Fourth, launching Friday evening's concert (second in the series). Its tension was undercut for me by the arrival, in the seat next to me, of a leggy, mouthy Irish blonde who seemed so excited by the prospect of hearing a full symphony orchestra in the concert hall for the first time that I hesitated to tell her to shut up as she whispered sibilantly to her boyfriend throughout this toughest of symphonies. I thought if I did, I might put her off concerts for life. My patience paid off - once I'd given her one of our (free) programmes, which engrossed her, she sat rapt through the Seventh and said she'd certainly come again. But it was a restless audience. Latecomers having been admitted halfway through the Fourth, Salonen waited an age for them to seat themselves before launching that most daunting of Adagios. Finlandia was the encore - after the Seventh, for goodness' sake - and you could tell this is a band which plays lots of film scores: good, vulgar fun.

Wish I could have said the same for the Michael Clark Company's Stravinsky trilogy the following evening. I suppose we were expecting something cutting-edge, but it was all tired and lacking in real energy. You might think it difficult to make The Rite of Spring, albeit played (very well) on two pianos, boring - but these lackadaisical, eviscerated dancers did just that. The Leigh Bowery costumes look horribly dated (and why the toilet lids sported by two of the dancers?); there's quite a good number danced by a self-pleasuring lady in purple to the 'Spring Rounds', but the 'Danse Sacrale' - a very unclimactic solo for a bare-breasted prima ballerina alone on the stage - was anything but primal. Apollo lacked poetry - the male dancers are rather thick set and not very sexy - while Les noces saw the dancers jiggling about a bit in the midst of a mimsy chorus (the supposedly professional New London Chamber Choir), four second-rate soloists and an OK yet hardly bracing piano and percussion ensemble. At no point did Clark do anything new to make one forget the extraordinary achievements of Balanchine and Nijinska, still fresh as paint in these works. And there was more life in the flickers of emotion passing across the face of the octogenarian composer, seen conducting the Firebird finale in a 1965 film before Les noces, than in the rest of this oddly enervating evening.

Best of the weekend was a screening of four documentaries in the Brixton Ritzy's mini-Roma festival - or rather the first two, one about Roma children in a Serbian village picking up the brass band tradition, the other about grubby but idealistic kids in an encampment on the outskirts of Belgrade. The film about Guca, the incredible meeting of Roma brass groups and folk ensembles with Serbian nationalism, went on a bit - as, evidently, would the festival, which we once thought of visiting - and then there was a badly put-together documentary about Macedonian Esma, 'Queen of the Gypsies', an interesting character with her 47 adopted sons and her pleas for internationalism, but one wanted to hear and see far more of her in her younger days.

Have started Turn of the Screw with the City Lit students, already feeling a bit queasy about the subject-matter and living with it for the next four weeks, but it's a masterpiece, no doubt, and it's good to get back to Henry James. The claims Britten is supposed to have made to Eric Crozier and Myfanwy Piper about his schooltime rape and his father sending him out to procure boys do seem extraordinary, but help to account for the horrifying murk of the piece. Will have to offset it with morning doses of the many Bach cantatas up for the BBC Music Magazine awards this year.

Friday 2 November 2007

Autumn interlude - II

Essex can be gorgeous: did you know this? Apart from an earlier excursion to Constable Country, where we found 'I hate boring Dedum' (sic) painted on a stile, I had no idea. A weekend with the Le Franc family, however, in their rented cottage on the Layer Marney Estate, changed all that. It may not be as dramatic as Offa's Dyke country, but how's this for handsome samphire-covered marshland and an early Renaissance extravaganza of a gateway (a few hundred yards from the cottage).

Of course the landscape can be very bleak on a wet Sunday (taken on the isle of Mersea after one of the best seafood lunches ever):

But there are always gems like this to explore - Copford Church with its 12th century wall-paintings (slightly overdone in the Victorian restoration, but essentially authentic). I took this photo because the postcard didn't squeeze in the extraordinary zodiac signs on the arch as well as the splendid roundel of Christ enthroned in the dome of the apse:

Back in London, I loved the profanity of Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine at the Almeida. It turns gender and race topsy-turvy but manages to be entertaining at the same time and gives the actors a real showcase for their craft. A man plays a repressed Victorian lady in the colonial first half, her son in the second (set in 1979, the year the play was written, but the three characters who return have only aged 25 years); the Victorian paterfamilias becomes a likeable lesbian's four-year old daughter; a stunning young actress (Nicola Walker) plays the girly son in part one and takes over the now discreetly liberated mother in part two. And so on. It hasn't dated and the sexual politics are still suitably confusing. The superb ensemble included two names I recognised from the original cast of Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing, still one of the best ever evenings I've spent in the theatre, which I was reminded must have been nearly a decade ago.

The other great pleasure of the week has been to go through John Lanchbery's effervescent ballet score for the Ashton ballet (first a film and now a Covent Garden production, which I'm writing about in the Royal Ballet programme) of The Tales of Beatrix Potter. It struck me for the first time that the Squirrel Nutkin episode is a choreographic homage to Till Eulenspiegel; and how inspired that the piggies' Pas de deux should furnish the most lush and romantic, Tchaikovsky-influenced music in the ballet. I went back to my interview with the late lamented 'Jack' in 1995, and was delighted to find how much more material I could draw from it. Also a huge pleasure to have him playing the home Steinway so spontaneously.