Wednesday 17 December 2008

Festival of light

The bright lights of London at this time of year certainly help to keep it from looking like the 'great, grey Babylon' of James's famous description, whatever's going on in the presumably (and justifiably) gloomy hearts and souls of the city workers at the moment. Not all these illuminations are quite seasonal - I think the blueing of the trees on the Southbank and, of course, the Oxo tower on which I tried to do some impressionistic camerawork above, are there to stay. And Southwark council seems to have been doing some sterling work with artists underneath the arches on Southwark Street.

There's a winter fair I've been cycling past on my way home through Hyde Park, with an arresting snowflake big wheel which looks especially alluring after dark.

All life moves inside on the grey days. Southwark Cathedral was a refuge from the pouring rain on Saturday, when Anneli's friend, and ours now too, Riikka Hakola flew in to sing for the Finnish church with expert pianist Ilkka Paananen.

I liked their Sibelius and their Finnish carols, but what struck me most was an 'Ave Maria' by Franck that I'd not heard before, effortlessly effective and simple.

Jonny Brown came for an exhibition of his south-of-France impressions, lighting up the 12 Star Gallery with his usual panache (and spot the artist in the below gathering - not difficult).

Meanwhile, our mutual friend Ruth Addinall, whose elegant website is worth a peek and who paid a flying birthday visit in November, has been busy with her own big exhibition up in her long-term base of Edinburgh, at the Patriothall Gallery. I'm not much use to either artist, as Jonny's exhibition finished a couple of weeks back, and Ruthie's yesterday, but...ars longa. So here's another Addinall I'd like, her 'Fantasy Garden':

Which leads me into the woods of the Royal Opera Hansel and Gretel. They're going through a funny phase - I hope soon to be resolved - of saying no to publicity shots on blogs, so those of you that haven't seen the show will have to wait until Christmas Day to see what all the fuss has been about, not least the storm in a teacup conjured by the tut-tutting Daily Mail.

The trouble with this new production by the Caurier-Leiser team is that it can't make its mind whether to be picture-book pretty or gas-oven nasty. There's no overall identity, as there was in the terrible-mouth Jones production, with its dazzling dream banquet, or the famous Pountney show set in the 1950s. The children, as has frequently been remarked, certainly haven't gone short of a good Bavarian meat dinner or two, so the dream-panto 'present' (guess what) doesn't have much of an impact. I like to see a fair forest once in a while, but even I felt a bit squeamish about the witch's cupboard of hanged children. It just doesn't fit.

The star of the cast I saw was unquestionably Diana Damrau - a convincing girl, a lyric soprano who projects every phrase with a Lieder-singer's art, lovingly indulged by a sometimes too-caressing Sir Colin Davis. Kirchschlager strains for the upper register, and isn't half as real a boy as Alice Coote (alternate cast, and Jones's Hansel); Anja Silja seemed to be ambling her way through an indeterminately-characterised Hexe, though it's always good to see her on stage, if no longer to hear her (at nearly seventy, the glory days of her Kostelnicka and Emilia Marty must be over now). My students all agreed, though, that it was hard to see another Hansel after four weeks in the company of Jones at the Met. 'That's the one', said Alice Coote when I bumped into her - and it's not the only view possible, but so far, for me at least, it's the compelling best.

Don't hesitate to buy this as a Christmas present for six-year olds plus - they'll love it. Oh, and I can't resist something that's struck me: with Langridge dragging up as the Hexe at the Met, and Ann Murray double-cast with Anja in the role at the Royal Opera it must be the first time that a husband and wife have ever sung the same role...

The hearth of the master

From The Letters of Lytton Strachey ed. Paul Levy (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York): To Leonard Woolf, from 'Ye Olde Mermaid Inn, Rye, Sussex', 4 January 1909: '[Henry James] came in here to show the antique fireplace to a young French poet - you never saw such a scene - the poor man absolutely bouche beante [gaping], and all the golfers and bishops sitting round quite solidly munching buttered buns. He has a colossal physiognomy, and it's almost impossible to believe that such an appearance could have produced the Sacred Fount'.

We were, accordingly, keen to see the vast fireplace - its width not captured above - on a visit to treat the mother-in-law to a Mermaid Xmas lunch on a biting cold, grey day. James's (and then E F Benson's) Lamb House still looks massively reassuring in winter, though of course the garden's best seen in the spring (we were particularly amused to discover from the guardian last time that there were two rival E F Benson societies giving very different tours around Rye - very Tilling). Pevsner tells us that West Street has a 'dog leg course', which means you can only see half the house as you approach it.

And so back to Lytton, writing to Leonard again, speculating on Clive Bell and Vanessa Stephen, 19 September 1906: 'He thinks that Vanessa will eventually marry him. It's impossible to say what may or may not happen in this monstrous universe, so that I can't help feeling a trifle nervous. If it should by any mad chance occur it would be a complete amalgamation of the disgusting and the grotesque. Imagine, please, the family!' No need to imagine - here's a granddaughter:

Not so bad, I'd say - rather handsome, in fact. And for common sense our dear Cressida, welcoming us here to Sunday lunch, says she takes more after mama Olivier than the obviously adorable Quentin (how I wish I'd met him).

We watched the film Carrington a couple of days ago. I'm afraid I found it the usual soft-centred British biopic, though with at least a smattering of vivid language and a few good one-liners - and Jonathan Pryce makes a living character out of Lytton. When Christopher Hampton's script stops making the characters utter platitudes, it can be briefly moving - it certainly is when Carrington (the always splendid Emma Thompson, though she has none of the artist's supposed sex appeal) roams the empty Ham Spray inconsolable and suicide-bent after Lytton's death. Thank God the Schubert Quintet takes over again from the overwrought Nyman score at that point. Carrington's pictures look very fine in the gallery shots you get as the credits roll; a one-woman show might be rather interesting.

Monday 15 December 2008

Twenty ways of looking...

So I finally chose to forsake Tristan Act 2 - and Joyce DiDonato with the Talens Lyriques in Handel, a foretaste of which we were given at the French ambassador's residence on Friday - in favour of Messiaen's Vingt regards sur l'Enfant Jesus (a suggested translation is 'Twenty ways of looking at the Infant Jesus'). How could I regret it? This monumental cycle seems to be performed rather more often than its phenomenal difficulties and the enormous concentration span it demands from both pianist and audience would seem to permit. Yet, as with the Quatuor pour la fin du temps on Wednesday, I can't imagine hearing it played by anyone other than the artist(s) I heard at the Wigmore Hall - in this case, Steven Osborne solus.

He performed all riveting two and a quarter hours of the Vingt regards without a break (I could conceive one after the titanic central dance of 'Regard de l'Esprit de joie'). There are just moments, usually the slightly repetitive ones, where I find myself thinking of Massenet, Cecil B De Mille and Ed Seckerson's trademark phrase 'lurex music'. But Messiaen so pushed the boundaries of the pianistic possible in 1944-5 that one can only laugh (for joy) at the excessive cornerstones of the work, where Osborne always kept a steely grip on rhythm and overall shape. And time truly became space in 'Le baiser de l'Enfant-Jesus', in which he finally took the same transcendental role as that occupied by his colleagues in those three amazing movements of the Quatuor on Wednesday. It did enter my head to think both 'this is one of the loveliest piano pieces I've ever heard' and 'I could learn this!'...until the filigree birdsong and the massive cadenza-like passage drove all such notion from my head. Crikey, I couldn't play ANY of these pieces from start to finish.

Old friend Tom Pope and I stood at the end, of course - not just for Osborne's stamina, but also for his many voices, his orchestral command of every dimension and his tenderness. He seemed so normal and likeable afterwards, commending only the silence of the audience (by no means filling the Wigmore Hall, mostly men of a certain age). I now need to hear his recording.

Mike Spring, pianist-seeker and -booker of Hyperion who encouraged us to go backstage and pay our respects, says it's still one of his two or three all-time top piano discs made by that distinguished label. I do hope they can grab Osborne and Gerhardt, along with the violinist and clarinettist of their choice (they've played with so many) for the Quatuor. Likewise, I don't currently want to hear it interpreted by any other artists.

Saturday 13 December 2008


Last Saturday, with J going on from Brussels to visit the godson and family in Amsterdam, I packed a toothbrush and went back to undervalued gem King’s Lynn for a night and a day. It was a frosty, freezing but brilliantly clear weekend, so Jill and I put a thermos and crab sandwiches in the back of the car, drove into Lincolnshire and took the path along the bank on the edge of the Wash from a rather magical little place where two lighthouses sit either side of the mouth of the river Nene. This is our view of one of them from Guy's Head.

Our attempts to reach the seal breeding-grounds by the sea by striking out across the saltmarshes had to be aborted where the frosty channels finally blocked our way, but it was good to be briefly in contact with the springy turf.

Several miles further along the bank we saw huge flocks of overwintering geese from Siberia flocking...

...and settling on the marsh.

And as we ate our sandwiches and drank our much-needed coffee sitting on a lichened old plank, we watched a little (capital L) egret soaring.

This strange landscape, with the neatly-planted fields of the fens well below the level of the saltmarsh on the other side of the bank, is very similar to the one we know from our walks around the north Norfolk coast. And saltmarsh is half the territory of Jeremy Page's haunting first novel Salt, an atmospheric family chronicle which starts on the marshes near Morston before moving to the west Norfolk fens and back again. I didn't quite buy the last fifty or so pages, but there is vivid evocation of the local scene, even if you've never been there, and a wonderful description of the great flood of 1953.

The cover is designed by the marvellous Angie Lewin, who shares with our current favourite artist Mark Hearld a place in the enticing St Jude's Gallery, Aylsham (we've still not been over that side of Norfolk to pay a visit).

As always, on Sunday we also managed to squeeze in a great church - this time Walpole St. Peter in the middle of strange fen country. It was Alec Clifton-Taylor's top English church, and I can guess why from the size and the light, the wealth of original furnishings and the woodwork on the chancel stalls, though I'm not sure which of the figures were added by an accomplished Belgian refugee in the First World War; neither the church guide nor Pevsner are at all clear on this. Anyway, here's a splendid quadruple head caught in the light of the setting sun (you can see two faces).

The south porch of c.1450 is lavishly adorned both inside and out, with a parvise or room above the entrance, as at Salle (which I still reckon deserves the title of Norfolk's loveliest church, at least of the ones we've seen so far).

On my way to King's Cross from Covent Garden the previous day after a morning Hansel and Gretel (more anon if I ever get the photos - let's for the moment just say that Richard Jones still rules supreme) - I saw for the first time the stepped steeple of Hawksmoor's St George Bloomsbury gleaming in the dazzling winter light. George I stands in glory on the top; Tim Crawley re-carved the lion and the unicorn at huge expense in 2006, since the originals had been removed in the previous restoration of 1870.

Jill, who lives nearby, thinks they should put a plaque on the pavement telling people to look up, because it really is one of the wonders of Bloomsbury and it's easy to miss (I've never noticed it before, though friends to whom I enthused were a little scornful of my previous head-down mentality). You can just glimpse the tower through the squalor of Hogarth's Gin Lane; this now quite genteel part of London was once a den of iniquity (and inequity too, of course - the rich lived just around the corner from the very poorest).

Thursday 11 December 2008

Not forgetting Messiaen

You probably thought I already had (forgotten Messiaen, that is), since I made no mention on what would have been our sainted Frenchman's 100th birthday. To be honest, I went along to the Wigmore Hall last night not to pay tribute, but to hear Alban Gerhardt, that most musicianly and collegial of cellists with whom I'd conversed so happily before his Prom Prokofiev, in the great company of his regular pianist, Steven Osborne, the astounding Kari Kriikku - whose performance of the Lindberg Clarinet Concerto ranks as the most electrifying of concerto experiences - and a violinist I hadn't heard before, the beautiful Viviane Hagner.

Dare I confess that I've never heard the Quartet for the end of time live before? Well, we all have surprising gaps in our musical experience, and I dare say it was worth waiting for this particular context. From his privileged place among the stars, if you believe in such things, Messiaen would no doubt have honed in through the melange of centenary tributes to the still small voice of calm represented by Kriikku's 'Abime des oiseaux', featuring quite simply the most supernatural swells from true pianissimo to fortissimo. A hard act to follow, but Gerhardt and Hagner matched it in their meditations, watchfully anchored by Osborne. What a riveting pianist he is, earlier breaking the bounds of the possible in the finale of the Ravel Trio (clever programming, this: not only does Ravel ultimately seem to anticipate some of Messiaen's bigger threshes, but each piece was vitally affected by the World War threatening to engulf it). Should I drop Jurowski's Tristan Act Two on Saturday and return to the Wigmore for Osborne in the Vingt regards? I think I shall.

As for the stature of the Quatuor, it lives up to its transcendental aims even if you were not to know anything of its circumstances (Messiaen sketched the 'Abime' while impounded by the Nazis in a field near Nancy, adding the other seven movements as a POW in Stalag VIII, Goerlitz, Silesia. When he wrote it, the composer lacked a piano; a rather battered one arrived in time for the freezing-cold premiere on 15 January 1941, for which there is even a playbill, illustrated above). I still feel that Messiaen went on to repeat too many of his distinctive formulas, often at too great a length. Yet while I don't take back what I wrote about Turangalila in June, I now wish I'd put myself out for Saint Francois at the Proms. And last night's event, greeted by a silence which could have gone on indefinitely had the players not broken it themselves, was as moving as any of the towering performances I've been lucky to hear this year.

Among them, alas, I can't include Sir Simon Rattle's Schumann with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. While last year's Paradise and the Peri was such a Messiaenic experience, the Fourth Symphony on Monday fell flat for me. So much effort from all concerned, and so little sound coming out. And with the string phrases often falling dead at the players' feet in the RFH, Rattle's crucial lack of line couldn't hide behind burnished sonorities. I left my pal Stephen Johnson to get what he could out of the Second, which was to follow after the interval, but we both agreed it was interesting at best - the occasional clarity of texture - but nowhere close to the supple sheen of a non-period band under the right conductor in this music.

Whereas I'd swapped excellent like for like deserting the BBCSO's Bruckner Five for Boris Giltburg a couple of weeks ago, I fear I was roundly punished for turning my back on the latest BBCSO concert in Sir Simon's favour. For while the new Sam Hayden piece sounds to have turned out every inch as impossible as its conductor had told me it was - 'stay in the bar for that one', had been the advice, following many hours spent making the rhythms legible to the best sight-reading orchestra in the world - Gil Shaham in Mozart and Stravinsky had, according to two of my students, been a joyous tour de force.

Elliott Carter, Messiaen's junior by one day, is 100. I'm afraid I'm not going there again if I can help it. He may be a nice guy - if a dreadfully long-winded speaker - and I'm glad he's reached the grand old age he has, with so many crucial memories intact. But, while I can admire some of the technique, his music has never spoken to me. My loss, some would say.

Wednesday 10 December 2008

Rediscovering Prokofiev

Here I am, a little dazed after an intense day's collaboration, with even harder-working conductor David Robertson in Maida Vale Studio 1. This was last Wednesday, when I presented my first ever Discovering Music for Radio 3 in front of a largeish audience and an even more sizeable and daunting BBC Symphony Orchestra. The subject was Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, a work I thought I knew fairly well.

Yet by the end of the rehearsals and recording - 45 minutes of talk with examples, followed by a complete performance of the symphony - I realised there was much, much more to discover. I think it partly helped that the players had to go over their excerpts quite a few times, with the divided cellos especially finding increasing expression in the beautiful passage they play in the finale's introduction. Even so, it was undoubtedly a relief to find Robertson's view of the work as deep and dark tallying with mine. I've sounded off before other performances where I felt that the slick, showpiecey presentation went against the grain of what I'd been trying to say - especially true of a Proms telly interview before Sinaisky's hurried interpretation - but I can say hand on heart that this was the most probing performance I've heard of it since Tilson Thomas's: humanely phrased, broad without being pompous, sarcastic and biting without drilling home too much any 'Stalin subtext'.

The symphony was first performed, famously according to Richter's memoirs, just as a Russian victory over the Germans in early 1945 seemed in sight. So that, in tandem with Prokofiev's Sovietspeak radio broadcast proclaiming it as 'a symphony of the grandeur of the human spirit', have always rather worked against it being taken seriously as an ambivalent work switching from epic to caricatural mode, ranging from bright heroics to sombre lament.

It's not my place to rehearse here the thrust of the argument - that will be broadcast some time in the New Year - but I might just raise a few seminal points: why the big, aggressive triumph a la Shostakovich Five at the end of the first movement, not the finale? And why does the vast machinery ripping the heroic themes to shreds fade to a quizzical string quintet, piano and harps just before the last B flat major unison? Tussles over which key the first movement's lyrical second subject had veered into - it pulls two ways - revealed to us the incredible complexity of Prokofiev's harmonic sidestepping when he wants to write an unconventional melody and to avoid hackneyed turns of phrase. I also had fun underlining the devilish tritone, lucky to call upon orchestral pianist for the session Helen Crayford to demonstrate passages from the Sixth and Eighth Piano Sonatas. It was especially thrilling to hear the orchestra let rip immediately with the Romeo and Juliet excerpt and the very end of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony.

And, yes, finally, I do think I gave a decent enough talk, thanks partly to the detailed preparatory work of R3 producer Chris Wines, though I had to put on a performance rather than my usual free ramble after I'd inwardly quaked while the orchestra rehearsed the fiddly snippets I'd set for them, not without a few grumbles. But the enthusiasm of several players at the end, including stalwart horn Chris Larkin and my favourite oboist, the incredibly humble Richard Simpson, made me feel that they'd learned something too. What a tough schedule, though - a full day of intensive playing ending in final retakes for BBC Chief Producer Ann McKay, with only short breaks for coffee and lunch. This is the sort of thing these heroic folk are doing every day of the week.

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Happy 400th, wordy John

Today is John Milton's 400th birthday - and it was only just over a year ago that we celebrated the 250th of his perfect illustrator, as exampled above, William Blake (who seems to be something of a leitmotif here, I know not why).

All I want to recall are the circumstances of the time I actually read with pleasure the whole of Paradise Lost. Having been drilled in Books One and Two for A-level - too early, though I did relish some of the desolate scenes against which Satan poured out his defiance speeches - it wasn't until nearly two decades later, on a holiday in Basilicata and Calabria, that I took it up again.

Serendipity struck when I discovered that, according to Norman Douglas in Old Calabria, Milton's chief source, Serafino della Salandra with his Adamo Caduto, came from Cosenza. We didn't actually stop there, but we'd already spent time walking in the Pollino National Park before I discovered this fact. And there, reading Paradise Lost, I'd been struck by how the great high plain beneath Montes Pollino and Dolcedorme, even on a brilliant autumnal day, chimed with the landscape where Satan held his Pandemonium; and how much more so the following morning, when the first snows were due and all the autumn colour had drained out of the landscape. Perhaps I'll be able to get a photo scanned by tomorrow, but the important thing is just to say many happy returns with an especially vivid memory.

Oh, and I still want to do a production of Comus up the enchanting valley near Ludlow where the revels are supposed to have been set.

Monday 8 December 2008

Vivat La Miricioiu

Thus they salute Nelly Miricioiu in her native Romania, and Romania came to London to hear a galleon of a recital in that country's gorgeous Cultural Institute (prestigious address 1 Belgrave Square).

Our Nelly, if I may be so frisky with this most vivacious of divas, is probably the only soprano these days who would lure me in to Bellini or Donizetti (I exaggerate slightly; I still didn't go to her latest Chelsea Opera appearances, more fool me, though sitting through Roberto Devereux in concert at the Royal Opera a few years back was worth it for the flaming last ten minutes). She has the detailed style of true bel canto so at her fingertips that every phrase even of recitative is supercharged with meaning and emotion. Who else is doing this now that Scotto's retired? I can't think of any other example.

I first heard Miricioiu in Edinburgh in 1981 when lovely Lottie - then the sloaney-seeming girl in red stockings who bounced around saying 'let's go to the opera' - organised a party of students to brave the cavernous Playhouse for Anthony Besch's Scottish Opera production of Tosca, conducted by Gibson (one of the few things he did really well in his declining years). She was the real thing alright, and a year or so later she came back as Violetta, singing an 'addio del passato' that's still branded on my memory.

Her latest recital needn't have been as generous as it was; fifty minutes of plums plus a bit of Enescu to keep that society happy would have fitted the bill, especially as she and her wonderful, super-experienced pianist David Harper returned their fees. But she kept us spellbound in what that eminent Hungarian Agnes Kory, one of a diverse crowd packed into the L-shaped recital room on the first floor of the Institute, described as a masterclass - working the room, knowing whom to address which song or aria to, moving straight into character for the big numbers, marshalling her energies (at 56, some beautiful sounds still emerge) yet never seeming to stint.

For me, the biggest treat of all was Elisabetta's gigantic farewell aria in Verdi's Don Carlo. Harper, giving us all of the solemn introduction, made it sound like Liszt in religious mood. And, oh, the expression on 'Francia' and 'la pace dell'avel'. That, moreover, after Rodrigo, two Donizetti songs, 'Bel raggio' from Rossini's Semiramide, two Romanian numbers by Nicolae Bretan and a tear-jerking Doina from an opera by Brediceanu.

Surely enough of a recital for any soprano. But that was just the first half. Enescu folk were disappointed that she sang only three of his seven Marot settings, but those were very touching in their direct simplicity. Then regal Meyerbeer, a Bellini mad scene complete with Callas tones at the start, and a stupendous Lady Macbeth double-salute. Apparently she sang the role with Chelsea Opera, where she has a splendid relationship with my very enterprising friends Duncan Orr and Christine Wheeler (how she greeted them with such a squawk of delight at the post-recital melee), and I missed it. Never again: I'll try to catch every masterclass - she's an inspiring teacher, I'm told - and every performance; the next is Adriana Lecouvreur with COG, and Ros Plowright down to sing the Princess.

Now that I've sorted out my downloads, and the computer is briefly behaving, here are a couple of amateur shots to complement the Romanian pro above. I did think it a pity that there don't seem to be any snaps of Nelly with her long-serving pianist, Herr Harper, and that the cameramen weren't in our corner of the room to catch the splendid mirror (a gift for a Marschallin or a Capriccio Countess, though neither are in Nelly's sphere). So here's our Diva in reflected glory with David a little in the shade at the end.

And finally, a photo of Nelly in another element at the reception with the enterprising Gabriela Massaci, head of the Institute.

Friday 5 December 2008

Lean times, with Guinness

Oh, what a fool I was to think David Lean's Dickens films were just a couple more Hollywoodised adaptations. I suppose in those days I was such a puritan fanatic of the novels that any inevitable trimmings raised a groan - how, for example, could he leave creepy Orlick out of the drama of Great Expectations?

Now, I guess, I accept that a book is one thing and a one-and-a-half- to two-hour film quite another. How accomplished is the narrative drive of Lean's Great Expectations, how broody and cleverly composed his scenes on the marshes. Of course, said a cineaste to me earlier this week: don't you know that the Pip-Magwitch sequence at the beginning is one of the classics of film theory? Well, I didn't - but I appreciate it more now. I love how much of Dickens' dialogue gets accommodated, and how well it's delivered by the well-modulated voices of Martita Hunt and John Mills. Hunt even makes us feel sympathy for Miss Havisham.

So after revisiting this we realised we'd never seen Lean's Oliver Twist either, and prioritised that with LoveFilm. My word, the shadows and the faces: worthy of Kozintsev and Trauberg and their Soviet 'Factory of the Eccentric Actor' stable back in the 1920s and '30s. Alec Guinness's Fagin overdoes the nose-putty, but it must have been rather courageous to go along with the Jewish character like that just after the war. Could two performances be more different than Guinness's humorous, alert Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations and his nasty, unsentimentalised king of thieves (pictured at the top with two of Lean's outstanding child actors, John Howard Davies as Oliver and Anthony Newley as the Artful Dodger)?

Guinness was a genius. I've never been half as moved by any of Olivier's or Gielgud's performances on film (and I only saw Gielgud once on stage, as Julius Caesar, but I remember more vividly Ronald Pickup's Cassius - perhaps because I was playing the part at school at the time - and Mark McManus's Anthony). Last year we worked our way through the BBC Smiley series, and marvelled at Sir Alec's subtlety. And to round off our mini-festival of British cinema, J called up Tunes of Glory, directed by Lean's former cinematographer Ronald Neame without much visual splendour, but featuring a great double act from Guinness's roistering Scot and John Mills as the tormented, up-tight army man sent to replace him as commanding office of the regiment.

Interesting that Guinness gets the lion's share of the poster art there. Mills is just as remarkable, as indeed he was in Scott of the Antarctic, which so surprised me when I was indulging myself in classes on the Vaughan Williams symphonies (the film music works much better than its concert-hall spinoff). We think only of English stiff-upper-lippery, but how good Mills was at conveying the turmoil beneath. And Tunes of Glory is all about that inner chaos: James Kennaway's script may be short on external action, but how deep it goes in its psychology as both the Guinness and Mills characters try to smother the fallout from the Second World War. How touching Mills was, too, shortly before his death, as old Chuffey in the magnificent BBC serialisation of Martin Chuzzlewit.

And now, can you believe, I have to find a cinema screen big enough to do justice to Lawrence of Arabia, which I've still not seen.

Tuesday 2 December 2008


No, not a reference to Thanksgiving - which has no meaning for us Brits unless we have a Yankee spouse or family - but a throwback to the BBC Symphony's 'East meets West' events. The one I went to was a revelation, because following Michael Ellison's appetite-whetting visit to my City Lit class, I heard for the first time a Turkish classical/traditional group of supreme sophistication, the Ali Tufekci Ensemble. As pictured above by Simon Jay, the members of the ensemble are Ali himself, player of that ney or Arabic flute beloved of Mevlana and the sufis of Konya; Furkan Bilgi, whose bowed kemence can encompass everything from melancholy introspection to animal howling; kanun player Halil Karaduman, the extrovert of the group, who demonstrated on his 'Turkish zither' twelve tones between one tempered note and the next; and Enver Mete Aslan, Ud player equal to the subtleties of the Iranian equivalent we heard demonstrated one Christmas evening in Isfahan. Sitting in the middle is the remarkable young singer Guc Gulle.

The ATE's 'sets' ranged from religious and folk groups to wild dance music: a breathtaking range. In between we had one of the best harpists in the world, Sioned Williams, who of course is also the BBCSO principal and has Iranian connections due to her husband (she's an enthralling speaker, though she didn't get the chance on this occasion. We'd love to have her back with the class - at Morley she told us movingly of the incredible sacrifices her hard-up Welsh parents made to get her a decent harp).

The end was, for me, rather unspeakable, though the students in front gave it a standing ovation. It seems to me debasing for a group like this to have to go along with the doodlings of the 'BBCSO Fusion Ensemble', though you couldn't fault the contributions of the hard-working Turkish students and BBCSO members. I've always thought 'fusion' the watered-down worst of all cultures, and this grand finale only confirmed my prejudice. Never mind; the Ali Tufekcis had already given us the best.

The concert, and Michael's talk, made me very nostalgic for the east of Turkey, which I travelled round in 1986 with Simon - when he was teaching English in Istanbul - and the lovely Emma, whom I've not seen since. I remembered especially the strangeness of Erzurum, about Michael waxed enthusiastic: every second person there, he says, is a poet, and musical evenings abound (as maybe they must in this isolated place, snowbound in winter). To be truthful, this very conservative city at high altitude - it was cold at nights even in August, when we went - holds up a mirror to the best and worst of Turkey. There we also experienced the horror of a carpet factory peopled by seven- to fourteen-year old girls sent out to work while their fathers lounge around all day in cay houses (they stop at around fourteen when the close work has cost them their sight). The friendly man who took us there just couldn't understand our objections, and the visit ended very unhappily.

Well, I hope that's all over two decades later. To look on the bright side - much needed in this December gloom - I scanned a few of my photos from the 1986 trip (crikey, the old Olympus OM-10 produced such sharp images. I'd never have given up on it had it not let me down in Syria. Although it was fixed, it could still be capricious). The first three are of Erzurum's architectural splendours from the Selcuk era. This is the 1310 gateway to the Yakutiye Medresesi, outside which we were preached at by a fanatical young man who refused to address or look at Emma:

And this is the real glory of Erzurum, the Cifte Minerali Medrese with its extraordinary 13th century minarets.

I may be wrong, but I think this view of the minarets was taken from the mausolea of Uc Kumbetler.

Our journey took us from the Black Sea coast to Erzurum, Kars and the ruined Armenian city of Ani, past Ararat and round Lake Van to the south - Diyarbakir bisected by the Tigris and Euphrates, Urfa and Abraham-country, the fascinating cliff-town of Mardin and the mountain-top mausoleum of Antiochus I on Nemrut Dagi. Tradition had it then - I guess it survives - for handfuls of tourists to take a minibus up to a rest house and rise just before the sun to catch the mountaintop in its full glory. I remember the journey up a ravine by the light of full moon so well because it came into my head to play through Rachmaninov's 'climbing' Paganini Variations up to the plateau of the famous Eighteenth Variation.

Sunrise, accompanied by countless clicking shutters (not mine at that point - I still have that snooty notion of being a 'traveller' rather than a 'tourist'), was indeed as spectacular as we had been promised. So allow me to post two shots - an eagle head on the west terrace, and the row of headless figures on the east terrace facing the sunrise:

Moving further (north) east, I can't recommend too highly two compilations recorded on a shoestring by that enterprising musical traveller Michael Church. His two-CD Georgian collection, 'Songs of Survival', confirms what I already knew of that country's amazing polyphonic choral tradition; I'll never forget the revelation of the Rustavi Male Voice Choir when Memo Rhein brought them to St. Petersburg for a showcase concert. Michael's collection runs the gamut of sacred and profane. Even more remarkable, for me at any rate, is the diversity of the other volume, covering Chechnya and its neighbours.

Here we have some outstanding vocalists in works that in many cases hover between Caucasian and Russian idioms. I especially liked the balalaika-accompanied songs of Sahab Mezhidov. There's also consummate delivery from the Chechen-Ingush Tamara Dadasheva and Lydia Bachaeva's earthy tones. Crucial to discs like these, which fall rather indiscriminately into the 'world music' category, is explanation of the texts and full documentation, which Michael has done superbly. I hope he completes his Caucasian trilogy as he hopes.

Friday 28 November 2008


That’s the only word to describe the devastatingly simple end of Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea, as Synge’s archetypal matron of loss Maurya finally takes on board the deaths of her six sons by naming them – ‘no man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied’ – and the hungry, unquiet sea roars against her last, becalmed major chords of acceptance: nature versus man in a final unanswered question.

Planned as the culmination of one intense hour in English National Opera's most unorthodox offering of the year, this took on the aspect of a perfect, calm memorial to Richard Hickox, who was due to conduct it (Edward Gardner did so, with tact and sensitivity). How Patricia Bardon, pictured above by Clive Barda with Leigh Melrose as the drowned Bartley and Kate Valentine as Cathleen, got through those lines without any break in the assured legato I don’t know, but this was a quietly authoritative performance from our finest contralto. Here she is again, very much centre stage.

What I hadn’t bargained for – I guess I should have read the papers, but I’m glad I hadn’t – was Fiona Shaw’s inspired prefacing of Riders with Sibelius’s Kalevala creation myth Luonnotar.

Suspended aloft in a long boat, as if viewed from above, the equally glorious Susan Gritton gave a no less searing interpretation as the air-spirit ocean-bound for seven centuries before her accidental act of creation. Her ideal lyric soprano now reaches out to a surprising richness, the taxing high laments pouring over us without the slightest hint of strain (there’s even a little in Soile Isokoski’s much-touted, BBC Music Magazine award-winning recording).

Birth, death, rebirth in aqueousness formed the cord between the two pieces, with minimal mood-music from John Woolrich, recorded snatches of Aran island song and the ongoing surge of Dorothy Cross’s superb video work. Sibelius's eight minutes of eternity are, for me, only mirrored in mastery by the end of VW's very internal opera, and the temperatures plummeted for much of it: the interest is in the mostly slate-grey orchestra, not – at least until the end – in the ungainly setting of Synge’s realistic dialogue. But you couldn’t fault Maurya’s daughters as sung by Kate Valentine and Claire Booth, and if Shaw’s staging asked for more febrile movement than the score implies, the bright rectangle of action flanked by cliffs and turbulent sea-pictures kept its focus. And it was totally satisfying to return full circle to the elemental rocking of Sibelius’s nature-mother, reappearing among the rocks in her pregnant state (though perhaps she should have walked calmly down centre stage, like the Lady from the Sea) while upside-down coffin-boats descended from the sky during Vaughan Williams’s epiphany.

PS - Just had an e-exchange with Ed Seckerson; we echo each other, though I guess he's happier with the whole of the VW as a work than I am. You can see Ed’s five-star Independent review here (for once they've pulled the stops out to get something in the paper double-quick; after all, there are only two performances left). As he added in our quick correspondence, 'where else in the world would you see an evening like this? We are lucky.' We are indeed.

Thursday 27 November 2008

At home with the Sixth

Jean and Aino Sibelius would, I hope, have been happy to invite you to listen in to Saturday morning's Building a Library on Radio 3, when I'm comparing all available versions of the Sixth Symphony (further details here - and don't forget the 'Listen Again' facility is also accessible for a week afterwards). I hope I captured a little of its essence a couple of entries earlier. And if that fanfare sounds like arrogance or outrageous self-advertising, for me (unless I'm deceiving myself) the pure yet paradoxically ambiguous masterpiece that is the Sixth comes first.

It's still too early to give any details of front-runners, but I'll hint that quite a few of the supposed classic versions should sound rather dreadful in the examples I've chosen, and that if certain contenders like Petri Sakari on Naxos and Lorin Maazel on Decca don't get a mention in the end product, it's not because I didn't listen to them nor start out with an example or two (I had 35 snippets before I began the painful whittling process).

Anyway, producer Kevin Bee said that the programme fulfils its essential brief - it makes you want to hear the work. I hope you love it as much as I still do.

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Empty places

It hadn’t occurred to me when I took this picture, of the empty chairs and stands left after LSO players had followed my Prokofiev talk at St Luke’s on Sunday afternoon with a spirited performance of the tricky Quintet, that it might tie in with the current wave of loss both private and public. I certainly felt sad to hear of the untimely death of Richard Hickox. I won’t play false to memory by saying that I admired him hugely as a conductor, but he did a great deal for a vast swathe of repertoire. Without him we may not have got to hear the original version of Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony, nor (in concert) the Mozart/Strauss Idomeneo and the original Ariadne, both bringing Christine Brewer to the fore.

I may have found him wanting in music which required a strong rhythmic sense – let’s pass over the dances in his Covent Garden performances of Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage, which were boorishly booed – but when he had a feeling for a certain spiritual inwardness in works he loved, the results could be very moving. So I’m very happy that I last saw him in action with Vaughan Williams' Pilgrim's Progress back in June. That semi-staged performance has already gone down as a one-in-a-thousand event, as it made me adore the work; how much more so will we treasure it now. I’m glad, though people mumbled at the time, that his eldest son got to sing a treble role, and that Mrs Hickox, Pamela Helen Stephen, was in it too.

My heart goes out to them and the two other young Hickoxes all the more because it was heartbreaking to have to look at Nell’s lovely children at the Glastonbury funeral service on Monday. I’ll freely admit that it wasn’t appropriate to have gone on not only to my class back in London that afternoon, but also to the Royal Opera Elektra. How could an (effectively) raving soprano battling against a 111-piece orchestra really have much an effect when I was haunted by the image of Nell’s young son Paddy playing ‘Love me tender’ on the guitar, supported by his teacher? What's more tragic-heroic, the bloody zenith of a family feud or a little boy courageously offering up a tribute to his dead mother under difficult circumstances?

Hansel with the class felt a bit more meaningful than Elektra, especially as we happened to be following the Richard Jones production as released on DVD by the Met in conjunction with EMI. Its scary-tender dream banquet, photographed here for the Met by Ken Howard, struck just the right note. NB Jones's musicality - the lids come off only at the very climax of Humperdinck's pantomime-ballet:

Gretel's little song in the wood as sung by the late, lamented Lucia Popp on CD was also bound to be more in tune with my mood than Susan Bullock’s spasmodic jubilation on the cluttered stage of Covent Garden.

You never know how you’re going to be taken by funeral services. The one for Simon’s mum was so bright and bittersweet, partly due to the presence of so many thespians; this, I think because of the kids, was fairly distressing throughout. Even so, the Tavener tied in well with a bagpiper heralding the coffin at the beginning, and his dulcet tones just made us laugh at the end in Ivesian melange with Monty Python’s ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ (hearing ‘life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it’ in the hallowed surroundings of St. John's did seem briefly hysterical). After I’d got through my tribute with difficulty, a headmaster from Cerne reminded us what a bloody-minded if inspirational teacher Nell had been. Simon played Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits unaccompanied on his flute, an odd parallel with my LSO talk the previous afternoon when I’d had the benefit of the orchestra's guest principal flautist Michael Cox representing various Prokofiev heroines (and a surprise sell-out of a book-signing turned poignant when two of the audience wanted ‘in memory’ inscriptions to, respectively, a Kenyan poet-husband and a violinist daughter who’d suffered from MS).

And, of course, we all roared out the Glastonbury anthem ‘Jerusalem’. Coincidentally, I can take you photographically from the thorn in the 15th century south chancel window of St John's… the birthplace of the author of ‘And did those feet…’, which I came across by chance arriving from Glastonbury back in Piccadilly Circus, and wandering the streets of Soho to pick up a score in Chappell’s before my class.

The angry poet, with his London ‘signs of weakness, signs of woe’, would not be too impressed by the state of William Blake House, erected I guess in the 1970s on the spot.

Anyhow, a word or two about Elektra. In my few objective moments I could tell that even on a normal day, I wouldn’t have been quite swept away by this curate’s egg of a show. I loathed Charles Edwards’ production first time around, when Anne Schwanewilms’ Chrysothemis was the only redeeming feature musically speaking. This time, though her top notes seemed to have lost something of their gleam from where I was sitting, she was surrounded by quality. Bullock has worked so hard on meaning and character that it seems a bit churlish to ask for laser-beam notes above the stave; but for anyone who'd heard Gwyneth, Behrens or even Marton hurl them out, this was bound to feel a little bit less than a superstar performance.

In any case Bullock, like everyone else, has to make so many calculated moves – Edwards, a designer first and foremost, and an imaginative one, has props, so everyone must use them – that the flow of psychological truth never has a chance. ‘Here I pick up the bust of Agamemnon and jig about a bit with it’, ‘here I post on the Bauhaus wall a picture of a missing child’ (to spell out to the audience Orest’s absence), ‘here I pick up the axe’ (premature to Strauss’s digging-music, and to laughter from the audience). And, later, there goes Aegisth a third time through the revolving doors with yet more blood on him and you realise why we had to have them in the first place, and there’s Orest raising his knife against Chrysothemis amid palace carnage; you half expect her to have to execute her last cries like the dying Countess Geschwitz in Lulu, though he spares her. Welch eines hundesfruehstuck, as one amusing Parterre poster put it. Elder’s conducting? Too heavy, for me – I remember Thielemann before his spoiling really making it sound like Strauss’s exaggerated ‘fairy music by Mendelssohn’. What a disappointment – and how difficult to dodge various ecstatic dignitaries afterwards as I forced myself to mumble ‘well, it didn't work for me, but maybe that’s my problem’.

I wanted to be more positive about the ENO Boris Godunov, which has had a rough ride in the press. Call me partisan, but I’d still say that Peter Rose’s Boris, seen above with his children in the Coronation Scene as portrayed by Clive Barda, represented the only world-class performance on stage; the artistry of the phrasing and the skill not to go too histrionically over the top in the hallucination might have passed a lot of punters by. Many raved about Sherratt’s Pimen, but it’s just a bass colour of the sort that many associate with the Russians. Slavic Peter wasn’t, and I didn’t find the death scene moving – but then I never have, not even with Gidon Saks.

So that may be Musorgsky's fault. Certainly you can lay at the composer’s door the way that one’s spirits, stirred by the two crowd scenes, slowly sink during the multiple narratives in the Chudov Monastery and the relentlessly unfunny tavern antics (especially sober at ENO this time). Interest and involvement are slowly rekindled in the ‘Palace Apartments’ Scene, but that would have been so much better if they’d played out the revised version throughout; this was, edition wise, as usual, an unsuccessful cut-and-paste. Tim Albery’s production has its moments, but I’m not sure you can quite reduce the needy populace to the level of a gulag group, and the jury is out on the big, claustrophobic barn which only opens up occasionally (and strikingly).

All power to Ed Gardner, drawing incisive, heavy colours in the pit. He’s announced that he will take up Hickox’s baton for the three ENO performances of Riders to the Sea. Given the subject-matter, it’s probably going to be an emotional half-hour-plus. What a shame to end the Vaughan Williams celebrations in grief at yet another interpreter (Vernon Handley being the other) failing to crown his due commemoration.

Thursday 20 November 2008

Deserting Bruckner for Boris

Giltburg, that is, not Godunov (he comes later in the week). And no, it wasn't the twentysomething pianist's winning smile, as pictured above by Eric Richmond, which had me pedalling like fury from the Barbican to the Southbank after my pre-performance talk on Bruckner's Fifth Symphony last Wednesday. Giltburg is already an interpreter of astonishing maturity and total control over the weighty, glowing sound he draws from the keyboard. I was bowled over by his debut recital disc in a BBC Music Magazine review, and a couple of months back, he talked to me over the phone about his then-forthcoming Queen Elizabeth Hall recital (the result appeared in this interview-profile).

It was a daunting programme indeed, and he swept into Beethoven's Op. 111 right at the start with magisterial aplomb, holding a very attentive audience silent between movements. I've never heard the trills of the variations quite so metaphysical or transparent. His decision to move straight on to the same unearthly light in Scriabin's Fourth Sonata was vindicated, too - such flight, such hovering on the brink of silence.

The second half was rather massive too: again, a monumental curtainraiser in the shape of Rachmaninov's greatest Etude-Tableau (and for me, perhaps the most haunting solo piano piece ever), Op. 39 No. 7. After bathing in the depths of Melnikov and Hayroudinoff for the Building a Library earlier in the year, I found this rather more externalised, if powerful all the same. Schumann's Carnaval had plenty of light and shade, not quite enough of the kittenish spring I love in Rachmaninov's own recording. The encores were idiosyncratic: a floating wistfulness about Rachmaninov's transcription of the Kreisler Liebesfreud, a further Etude-Tableau I was hoping for, the one about Red Riding-Hood and the Wolf. Again, I've heard more playful accounts, but none more frightening or ferocious.

So was it worth leaving behind Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner Five? Impossible to say; by the end of my allotted forty-five minutes of talk I was hungrier than ever to hear what they'd make of that greatest of all finale solutions, the introduction of the noble chorale minutes into the upheavals. Well, I'll get to hear the performance on the broadcast. My crowd included several enthusiastic Brucknerites who seemed to think I'd passed the test, so I was happy with that.

Yet what dilemmas London musical life poses. I could also have heard that same night Jurowski in Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, Elektra and Boris G (time enough for those anon) or Andreas Haefliger, whose agent had been torn between him and Giltburg. Sometimes I forget which mode I'm in, as in the case of the Friday before last, when I whizzed into Broadcasting House for five packed minutes with Tom Service, talking about another BBCSO concert from weeks back which was being broadcast that evening and whizzed away again to hear Rozhdestvensky in Tchaikovsky (some wonderful touches there, but generally too laid-back an approach to compare with the earlier wonders of Jurowski and Jarvi. And the Second Piano Concerto, played with surprising sensitivity by Mrs Noddy Rozh, Viktoria Postnikova, does go on for ever, though its level of thematic invention is extraordinarily high).

Just as dizzying is what one can catch between venues. That evening, having chewed the cud with Tom about Pintscher's hyper-refined, over-detailed Rimbaud piece Pourquoi l'azur muet, I found myself in Regent Street, dazzled for once by the Xmas lights: no Disney tack this year, just nets of stars.

With the moon above or behind them, they tied in rather nicely with the Rimbaud settings we'd just been discussing. How about (and I'm going to be especially pretentious and not give a translation):

Pourquoi l'azur muet et l'espace insondable?
Pourquoi les astres d'or fourmillant comme un sable?
Et tous ces mondes-la, que l'ether vaste embrasse
Vibrent-ils aux accents d'une eternelle voix?

Or - in the 'Phrase' leading up to 'Antique', my favourite 'bit' of Britten's Les Illuminations, lines not set by Pintscher:

J'ai tendu...des chaines d'or d'etoile a etoile, et je danse.

OK, these are just the twinkling summons to sorely-needed Christmas consumerism, and always too early - I don't linger in shops playing seasonal music. But the city does shine in the November gloom. On another short journey, from Mansion House to the Barbican for the Prokofiev events, I came across the Lord Mayor's coach temporarily liberated from the Museum of London and sitting in a glass booth of the Guildhall prior to its annual excursion in the City parade.

No doubt it's now turned back in to a pumpkin, but what a treat just to stumble across en route. Tonight I'll be taking another curious journey from London Bridge to Maida Vale for the only one of the three Turkish music events I can make in the BBCSO's collaborations with Istanbul-based composer/player/teacher Michael Ellison and the traditional Turkish ensemble of Ali Tufekci.

These events are free - the link for further details you can't click above (but can here) takes you to the BBC Symphony website. On Tuesday Michael came to my Inside the BBC Symphony Orchestra class with chief producer Ann McKay and fired us all up to hear more. He covered an enormous amount of ground, from folk and religious music to the four generations of classically-trained Turkish composers who have appeared on the scene since the 1920s, and his obvious enthusiasm was infectious. I think he and Ann were impressed by the students' lively questions, too, which ranged from observations on the similarities between this, Iranian and Cretan music to discussions about the Kurdish problem and the music being made by Turkish communities in Germany and whether there's any fusion going on (there is). I now have a long list of musicians and vocalists to go and hunt out on CD.