Friday 14 December 2007

A Straussian golden age

For those of us who never cared much for Schwarzkopf, and even dared to find flaws in Lisa Della Casa, the times have never been better for the enjoyment of that singular phenomenon, the Strauss soprano. There's no one way of going about it, and in recent years I have enjoyed in equal measure the liquid tones of Karita Mattila and Soile Isokoski as well as the fuller, more enveloping sound of Christine Brewer and now the young Anja Harteros, whose Four Last Songs with Fabio Luisi and the Dresden Staatskapelle on Sony is a wonder of communicative strength (even if she sings a little sharp at times in her excitement).

It took me longer to understand the special qualities of Anne Schwanewilms (pictured above by Johanna Peine). Some still find her subtlety a little perplexing: her Ariadne at Covent Garden did not, apparently, come across as vividly to those sitting way back in the amphitheatre as it did to those of us lucky enough to be in the stalls. But her Strauss songs for Hyperion's ambitious series, pioneered by that most sensitive and supportive of pianists Roger Vignoles, proved beyond measure that her uncanny ability to change colour, to float a high line and to choose the unexpected make her second to none in this repertoire.

At the Wigmore Hall with Vignoles last week, she was more unconventional than ever, plunging straight into hushed rapture with 'Traum durch die Dammerung', and ending with the desolation of Mahler's early 'Nicht wiedersehen!' (though of course there were consoling encores in more Strauss - 'Das Rosenband', the long line on 'Elysium' always unforgettable with this singer, and 'Wiegenlied'). The recital had an unsettling core of sadness and madness, and the audience was clearly drawn into the inner world that Schwanewilms so uniquely creates.

I was keenly anticipating her first Berlioz Nuits d'ete with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican this Wednesday. It was obvious from the first verse of 'Villanelle', however, that there were problems with the French, and a worrying lack of consonants. One of my usually more astute colleagues, Ed Seckerson, said it was one of the most boring performances he'd ever heard. I strongly disagree - again, Schwanewilms draws you into her interior world, which this of all 'cycles' demands (and got, especially with such a small and responsive LSO ensemble). Held rapt by 'Le spectre de la rose', I wept intemperately from the middle of 'Sur les lagunes' onwards. Of course, 'Absence' is one of the two most beautiful songs ever composed (the other has to be Mahler's 'Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen', doesn't it?). But again the special tone colour she brought to each refrain created even more magic than usual.

Even so, the rapture had to be modified - which it certainly wasn't when viola-player Tabea Zimmermann took wing with Sir Colin and an LSO on top form for Harold in Italy. Here the vivacious lady is, portrayed by Suschech Bayat:

She has to be among today's most dramatic and involving performers, moving with the music and playing with the entry of the protagonist's liveliest tune in the first movement in a way that made me want to laugh out loud for joy. The quiet refrain in the shepherd's piping sequence, too, was mesmerising. And what a great work it is, so full of melody as well as the familiar unconventional instrumentation. To think that at the same time a friend was enjoying what she said was an extraordinary Mahler 3 conducted by Rozhdestvensky over at the Festival Hall. London's musical scene has never been livelier: I keep saying I don't want to overdo it by cramming in too much, but there are too many irresistible and unusual programmes for the taking, and so many great artists to see.

Wednesday 12 December 2007

Prokofiev ballets old and new

While the Royal Ballet has refurbished and refreshed the classic Kenneth MacMillan Romeo and Juliet, English National Ballet continues to grab headlines with its newish production of The Snow Queen, purportedly to Prokofiev's last and least well-known ballet score, The Stone Flower. Choreographer Michael Corder had long wanted to try his hand at this full-length baggy monster, but was apparently told that no-one knew the story (a tale from the Urals about a perfectionist artisan who seeks the stone flower that will create a malachite vase of matchless beauty, only to sell his soul temporarily to the Mistress of the Copper Mountain until rescued by his true love). Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen provides a more familiar correspondence, as I pointed out in my notes for the Chandos recording of The Stone Flower back in 2003.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a three-act ballet on the subject would have to be as conventional as the original Bolshoi and Kirov productions of The Stone Flower. As you see from the second picture, courtesy of Patrick Baldwin, the Snow Queen (Darya Klimentova) sits on a superkitsch throne flanked by furry dancers who look like refugees from the cast of Cats (in fact they're supposed to be wolves and foxes). She does look splendid, of course, in her 'half kilometre of Swarovski well as several thousand crystal motives and thousands of individual stones'. Otherwise, the sets and costumes would not be out of place in a Soviet show of the 1970s.

Nicholas Georgiadis's 1960s sets for Romeo and Juliet over at Covent Garden, on the other hand, have been restored to their original glory, and so long as you like plenty of Sienese reds and browns, still look handsome. Within that framework I adored the small but perfectly formed and hyperpoetic lovers of Ivan Putrov and Roberta Marquez (pictured above by Rob Moore in rehearsal). The balcony scene brought tears to the eyes, as it so often does, and if something of the chamber-musical intimacy of the later scenes gets lost on the Covent Garden stage, the denouement was harrowing as ever. Everything about this revival breathed a confidence lacking the last time around, and Boris Gruzin's fluid pacing of the score made it sound better than I've ever heard it at the Garden. What an irresistible introduction to the ballet this still is, and how moving to recall that incredible television documentary in which inner-city kids worked on it for 18 months with the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

The Snow Queen presses all the right classic buttons, but rarely blazes with life, except in the vigorous gypsy divertissement of Act Three. To my untutored eyes, much of the choreography seemed stereotyped: surely an opportunity was missed to make the icy palace people more other-worldly and peculiar? Their dances were very ordinary. As for the score, amazingly well played under Martin West - what a deal of conducting talent is immersed in the regional ballet companies - it can hardly be said to have been 'arranged' by Julian Philips, unless you take 'arrangement' to mean 'positioning'. Wisely, perhaps, since The Stone Flower rarely rises to Prokofiev's greatest lyric heights, he has taken the romantic highspots from War and Peace - in the suite put together by the late Christopher Palmer, who is the only true, uncredited arranger of the evening - and the Summer Night suite drawn from Betrothal in a Monastery.

Elsewhere, the plums - and some of the duffer numbers - of The Stone Flower have been cut and pasted; if there are any new transitions, I didn't notice them. The biggest mistake, I think, is the start. Prokofiev's icily brilliant introduction is the perfect representation both of the Mistress of the Copper Mountain and her Andersen counterpart. We didn't get it: instead, the curtain immediately rose on the Snow Queen and her court, prancing to the polonaise from War and Peace. Thus what Verdi would have called the 'tinta' of the piece was never properly established. Best, perhaps, was the end of the First Act, Kay's absorption into the ice maiden's kingdom played out at length to the scherzo from the Fifth Symphony (originally an idea for Romeo and Juliet). Yosvani Ramos's Kay and Fernanda Oliveira's Gerda charmed; Klimentova had poise, and glittered in her Swarovski diamonds, but didn't seem to me sufficiently supernatural. Ah, the ballet world - how mired in the old-fashioned it is. And even when it tries to be modern, as we saw from Michael Clark's half-cock Stravinsky, it often falls flat.

Still, to see aristocratic dancing at its best is quite something: after listening to my fourteen complete Nutcrackers for Radio 3's Building a Library, on Saturday evening I watched the Royal Ballet show with incredibly slow but powerful conducting from the late, great Svetlanov and marvelled at how they could furnish not two but four wonderful principals. That's the sort of thing that Matthew Bourne's New Adventures (as Adventures in Motion Pictures is now called) can't do, but they know their strengths and their Nutcracker! is as fresh as when it first hit the stage in a double bill (as Tchaikovsky originally devised it) with the opera Yolanta. I'm taking one of my goddaughters to see it on Saturday. As for my library choice, you'll have to wait until 22 December to find out. Don't hold your breath. All I should add is that I love this masterpiece even more than when I started. It's a difficult thing to keep up the inspiration across the span of a two- or three-act ballet. Prokofiev managed it once, in Romeo and Juliet. The Stone Flower, like Britten's Prince of the Pagodas, starts well but then falls back on mere professionalism. Only Tchaikovsky pulled off the trick three times.

Can I just finish on a self-indulgent paean to what makes London on a crisp, clear winter's day so marvellous? After I'd had a fun time recording the Nutcracker script with the excellent Kevin Bee and his team in Broadcasting House, I allowed myself an afternoon off following two weeks of solid work. I had a slow-to-be-served but sociable lunch at the ICA with Jeremy and our Alexander teacher friend Tom Pope, looked round the exhibition of Peter Hujar's often outlandish photographs, cycled off to pick up scores from Westminster Library and then whiled away the hours before The Snow Queen up in Marylebone. I wanted to see the drawings from the Rothschild Collection at the Wallace Collection, which didn't take long - apart from the vivid Bakst Scheherazade design and some Lancrets, it didn't interest me - but I ended up more absorbed by the sword hilts in the oriental armoury, which I had entirely to myself. Then I wandered up and down Marylebone High Street, bought some records in the enormous Oxfam Shop, pottered in Daunt Books and had an omelette in Paul, where I bumped into Peter Maniura, his wife Robin and their daughter. Peter wanted to know if he should televise The Snow Queen, so I'll point him to this report. No doubt the Swarovski costumes will look good in close-up; but I don't anticipate it rivalling the telly hit of the Bourne Nutcracker!, for which Peter was also responsible.

Saturday 8 December 2007

Pretty Peri

After the flatulence of Foulds's World Requiem and Korngold's Heliane, what a joy to go back to an intimate oratorio, touched throughout by gentle genius. Such is Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri, launched shortly after his Wunderjahr of 1840 at a white heat which surprised even Clara. Based on Tom Moore's oriental fantasy Lallah Rookh - a far cry from his Irish 'melodies', which Jeremy performed a couple of weeks ago - this lovely concoction of Schumann's most emotional Lieder style with choruses of surprising delicacy and some very unpious ensembles has clearly won the heart of Sir Simon Rattle, who gave the most polished and flowing performance imaginable of it with the marvellous Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Royal Festival Hall last night.

He must have been delighted by his glorious line-up of soloists. I've misjudged Sally Matthews, probably because she was never cut out to be Figaro's Susanna; but here she soared and melted, capping the Peri's jolly and very unoratoriesque acceptance into heaven with a splendid top C. We had two of Britain's best tenors - Mark Padmore, committed as ever but straining a bit for the Langridge effect and lacking the bottom notes of this often low-lying narration, and Timothy Robinson, fresh from spooking us as Quint - as well as Kate Royal as the second soprano and the nurturing Bernarda Fink. I'm delighted Sir Simon sticks by David Wilson-Johnson: he made an amazingly good showing among glitzier company on the recent Mahler 8, and delivered his long solo in Schumann's third part with great dignity.

If there's a weakness in the work, it's that the composer doesn't do the macho battle stuff terribly convincingly; but the eternal feminine is clearly his element. Impossible not to come out with spirits discreetly soaring. On a personal note, too, I found it established the perfect emotional equilibrium between two extreme events I've attended recently - the 'naming' (ie non-Christian christening) of characterful one-year old Garance, at which I was delighted to be the 'celebrant', and the funeral of our friend Jill's mother Mary, to whom we were also close.

Wednesday 5 December 2007

The Sacrifice: An epilogue

In the wake of my euphoria over The Sacrifice (see below), I felt I had to e-mail James MacMillan, whom I’ve interviewed once and collaborated with on the Chandos liner notes for A Scotch Bestiary. He had come under fire from certain quarters, so I thought some lines of warm praise might not go amiss (this is part of a general resolve, which I thrashed out with Lynne Walker, to make sure to tell people in our sphere when we’ve been moved or impressed by something; it doesn’t happen often enough in our mealy-mouthed world).

He replied – and told me he was happy for me to reproduce the reply, citing names and all (though I hang fire there, as it might seem like sour grapes from me): ‘Your messages are intriguing and have provoked some thought! Someone said to Michael Symmons Roberts ((poet and librettist of The Sacrifice)) and I on Monday that the new music police "smell their deadliest enemies" in people like us. We have sometimes toyed with the idea of writing about this, but have so far decided against it, as it might look like whingeing. Nevertheless there is a story to be told about the narrow thinking of the contemporary music ghetto mentality and their unfriendliness towards those who depart from the party line. The situation is not helped by ((certain)) people....who continue to be the abrasively aggressive cheerleaders for "the cause", seeing people like myself as some kind of dangerous opposition.

'They haven't managed to land any meaningful blows on me, but I do worry about the impact they might have on the musical culture generally, and how they might depress younger figures coming through who are bullied into paths they might not want to take.’

We are trying out various sounding-boards, following James’s cue to ‘park our tanks’ on the mafia’s lawn, and hope Stephen Johnson might join us. I, too, fervently believe that direct communication in new music still tends to be frowned upon, and that the press wing of the contemporary music mafia continues to peddle the view that new works in performance are setting the world alight when the audience responds tepidly: a new piece a couple of years ago by Richard Barrett was a classic case in point.

Ultimately, no-one should come out of a concert-hall scratching the head and saying, ‘Not sure what I thought about that – what did you think?’ One’s either struck by something – even if one doesn’t understand it all on a first hearing – or not.

Saturday 1 December 2007

Two cheers for British opera

That's to say, not as in Forster's 'two cheers for democracy', but one resounding cheer at the beginning of the week for James MacMillan's The Sacrifice, hitting London for the first time, and another, more predictable one for Britten's The Turn of the Screw at English National Opera on Friday. The production pictures show Leigh Melrose as Evan and Lisa Milne as sacrificial offering number one Sian in Katie Mitchell's Welsh National Opera production of The Sacrifice (copyright Catherine Ashmore); and George Longworth as the dead Miles mourned over by Rebecca Evans's Governess in the ENO Turn of the Screw (copyright Neil Libbert).

For me, the MacMillan was the more shattering event of the two - perhaps because it was so fresh, so punch-packing and also because I'd completely forgotten what I'd read of the plot's most shocking twist and found myself unable to move from my seat at the end of Act 2. MacMillan and his librettist, poet Michael Symmons Roberts, have adapted a powerful tale from the Mabinogion to the present (or an imagined future), distilling the age-old situation of love thwarted by tribal hates and an implacable cycle of revenge. Isn't it odd that Adrian Mourby, in the Screw programme, writes how the 20th century had 'had its fill of star-crossed lovers caught between emerging nation states'; and yet here in the 21st is a myth which speaks as powerfully to us as Romeo and Juliet, with a further savagery all too familiar from world events today.

MacMillan serves Symmons Roberts's spare, eloquent and often piercing lines with all the devices opera has always used to move and terrorise its audience: memorable lyric phrases prevented from becoming cliched by their unusual shape and the often acid harmonies supporting them, violent dance music punctuated by crackling choruses - surely the most vigorous in British opera since Peter Grimes and Billy Budd - and, in the third act, ritualistic scenes of mourning and, finally, a tentatively hopeful pezzo concertato of which, as one reviewer justly wrote, Verdi might have been proud.

The contemporary music mafia sees it as a sell-out: good heavens, direct communication, tunes, duets, ensembles! But it rarely seems contrived - I even 'bought' the love-scene at the heart of the opera, after resisting its obvious setting-up for a minute or two. And the vocal writing, though clearly strenuous, especially for the men, is surely the most speech-melodic since Britten and Janacek: although Adams made a good shot of it in Nixon in China, this is where Ades (unintentionally, I think) and Birtwistle (with a quite deliberate angularity and instrumental leaping-about) part company with the truly great opera composers. As for the archetypal action, Katie Mitchell's fluid production and the lacerating commitment of some of our finest singing-actors stopped it sliding into black and white. Lisa Milne's Sian, the girl who makes a marriage of convenience in an attempt to bring two warring factions together, was moving to tears in her Act 3 lament, and always truthful in her simple dignity; Christopher Purves as her father, the General, brought all the intensity and focus which stunned us in his Wozzeck, also for Welsh National Opera. In the pit, the sounds conjured by JMacM ranged from the bewitching spider-web of soft sound in the Prelude to the razor-sharp Celtic snaps of the dangerous celebrations.

There could be no doubt that all the operatic mechanisms were working at full pelt in one of the 20th century's most rigorous masterpieces: The Turn of the Screw stands alongside Wozzeck in its phenomenal musical organisation made manifest in every stage of the drama. Throughout the four weeks I've spent on the opera in my City Lit classes, we've been terrified by Katie Mitchell's atmospheric film - also starring Lisa Milne, a rather radical departure from the 'mostly in the mind of the Governess' theory which James surely intended but convincing on its own terms - and Luc Bondy's visceral Aix production. David McVicar at ENO never put a foot wrong in terms of a sensitive, ambiguous presentation: the children never see the ghosts except in the dream sequences, but are clearly haunted by their awful recent history, while the Governess is an easily flustered, hot-headed young woman who's read too many romantic novels rather than an up-tight neurotic. But there was a problem in the hugeness of the ENO stage and the sets, not always ideally lit though very haunting when darkness triumphed.

My biggest disappointment came in the climactic interlude where the celesta makes the ghost of Quint manifest and the horn plays the 12-note 'Screw theme' for the first time in its entirety since the introduction. It was almost obliterated by the servants sliding on the creaking screens and shunting the scenery about, which took me back to my days as a Hesse student at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1983. I was privileged then to assist the adorable, stalwart Aldeburgh caretaker and stage manager Bob Ling with the scene-shifting for the Britten-Pears School's production (Lynne Dawson was the first of the two Governesses, fresh from music college; Helen Charnock led the second cast). Helping out Basil Coleman's revival-on-a-shoestring, we had to push around the noisy leftovers from the previous year's Eugene Onegin, and they made a heck of a noise during the interlude-variations. Myfanwy Piper, a rather intimidating lady, and Sir Peter Pears were much displeased, but there was nothing we could do (and it didn't prevent them singing 'Happy Birthday' to me on my 21st, even though they had no idea who I was). ENO's effort wasn't quite as bad, but given the bigger budget and the greater sophistication of stage machinery, it should have been silent.

Having all those servants, who are definitely there in the James novella but who benefit the opera by being absent and leaving the claustrophobic action to the six protagonists, diffused something of the horror; and of course, it would have chilled us more to the bone in a smaller theatre. That said, the projection and nuancing both of the soloists and the orchestral players under Garry Walker was at a higher level than in any other performance I've heard.

Rebecca Evans, without the edginess of the original Governess Jennifer Vyvyan, conveyed all the protagonist's impulsiveness and neediness through inflection of the text. Her most melting moments, such as the letter-writing in Act 2 and her desolation at the end, were heart-breaking. Nazan Fikret's Flora, as always much older than James's creation, came across as a big girl on the brink of womanhood, clearly already disturbed and marginalised by the Governess's fixation on sweet little Miles - also a performance of startling maturity from the second of the two boys in the cast, Jacob Moriarty. The ghosts didn't quite have the physical presence of Bondy's pair, but maybe that was part of the point; and Timothy Robinson was emblematic of the production's hard work on detail in the profound plumbing of every word as Britten so magnificently set it. I'd love to see McVicar's vision on film: that could solve the scene-shifting problems in the all-important interludes and allow us the close-ups I didn't get from my seat at the back of the stalls.